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Community Conversations Team Canvasses South Carolina

Matt Martin and Tom Barkin watch a man demonstrate a device
Regional Executive Matthew Martin (left) and Bank President Tom Barkin (right) listen as a leader of the CNC and screw manufacturing company Screwmatics, demonstrates one of the uses of the Pageland, S.C. company's component parts.

The Richmond Fed’s Community Conversations team visited two regions of South Carolina recently that are addressing similar issues – building and retaining their workforce and meeting related housing needs.

Summerville, South Carolina, and Chesterfield County, South Carolina, are located about two and a half hours apart; however, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, Richmond Fed Regional Executive for South Carolina Matthew Martin and Richmond Fed Community Development Manager Erika Bell heard from leaders in each area during their late June and mid-July visits that while manufacturing companies have substantive work from their clients, they don’t have enough workers to do it.

“In Summerville, one manufacturer assembles forklifts,” Martin said. “Like a lot of companies, this company is trying to come up with ways to recruit workers right out of high school. They have come up with an innovative recruitment strategy: hiring teachers for summer jobs, with the idea that the teachers will get an idea of what it’s like to work for them — shiny floors and air conditioned, tech-savvy workspaces — and become ambassadors with their students.”

With the program launching just a few months ago, it’s too early to gauge its success, Martin said; however, one of the participating teachers already has piqued the interest of her son, who has applied for the company’s apprenticeship program.

In Chesterfield County, a benefit for one of its localities — Pageland — is that it is located just 40 miles from Charlotte, which permits workers to commute into the city for the available jobs. Even so, that area is building more affordable housing developments to allow employees to both live and work there, if they choose.

In lieu of having enough workforce, which has left some businesses with idle machinery, more and more manufacturing companies have begun to rely on automated technology to perform tasks.

“We clearly heard that manufacturers are looking at automation because they can’t find enough workers with the skills or interest in the area,” Martin said.

On the other side of Chesterfield County, in Cheraw, a manufacturer that employees about 1,200 workers finds that most are coming from other counties.

“Ideally, the town would like to have more housing locally,” said Martin, who noted that some companies are covering the cost of temporary housing for workers. “The town of Cheraw is doing a housing study and would like some larger tract home builders to develop more housing in the town.”

Also in Cheraw, one of the goals is to pull from their current resident base by encouraging young people to stay in the area, Bell said. Northeastern Technical College is working with the manufacturing companies to find and train workers, and so is one of the local high schools.

“They are piloting programs in the area middle and high schools for megatronics and robotics and are forming partnerships between community colleges, manufacturers and schools with hopes that students can see how clean and modern today’s manufacturing plants are,” Bell said.

She and Martin agreed that this kind of innovation offers room for expansion, with more schools offering megatronics and robotics, and opportunities to learn more about the benefits of working in manufacturing.

These localities have also become more forward-looking, in terms of working on their infrastructure, to prepare for businesses and housing developments that may consider the towns as viable options in the future.

Bell and another colleague at the Richmond Fed, who is collecting data on community colleges across the Fifth District, will return to the area soon to meet with leaders of the technical college, and both she and Martin will continue to track the success that the manufacturing plants in Summerville and Chesterfield County have in meeting their workforce goals.

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)