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Columbia Business Monthly

Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report

Jan 30, 2018 12:31PM ● By Emily Stevenson
Photo by Jeff Blake

The Columbia, S.C. region has improved in four of five major areas of economic competitiveness since this time last year, according to EngenuitySC’s fourth annual Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report, as announced by the organization’s founding co-chair Steve Benjamin, Mayor of Columbia, S.C. The Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report is a major annual initiative of EngenuitySC, a nonprofit focused on long-term competitiveness and prosperity in the Midlands. View report info here:

An Overview of the Competition

The report analyzes economic competitiveness in the Columbia metropolitan statistical area (MSA), as compared with that of nine other city regions in the Southeast. The Columbia MSA analyzed for the report includes Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Fairfield, Saluda and Calhoun counties. Nine other metropolitan areas were analyzed for comparison, including Raleigh, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina and Lexington, Kentucky. The report’s index for each indicator shows how the MSAs compare. 

How It’s Made

Using research gathered and analyzed by Dr. Doug Woodward, professor & director of the Division of Research at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business, and his team, the report measures success based on the five major indicators of economic competitiveness:

  • Talent
  • Entrepreneurial/business environment
  • Innovation
  • Industry clusters
  • Livability 

Key Findings

Downtown Columbia, Cayce, Lexington and West Columbia are all booming, thanks to successful private investment. Notable positive trends for Columbia in this year’s report include the following:

  • A growth rate 36% faster than the national average in employment in arts, entertainment and recreation
  • An improving cost of living index, showing that Columbia continues to be a great place to live and do business
  • An incredible increase of 10 index points in innovative capacity, a testament to increasing R&D expenditures, both within the University of South Carolina and by businesses.

Livability remains the strongest index for Columbia relative to its peer regions, ranking fourth out of 10 MSAs included in the report. Livability is the only indicator in which Columbia did not show overall improvement year-over-year, however.

The Midlands Business Leadership Group Takes Action

Members of the Midlands Business Leadership Group (MBLG) provided an update on its “Regional Competitiveness Initiative,” launched publicly one year ago.

The MBLG, a coalition of more than 40 CEOs and executives from the region’s largest employers who regularly convene and work on issues that are important to the Midlands, has formed working groups to prioritize and catalyze action across the region. The MBLG’s seven priority initiatives for 2018 include riverfront development, enhancements to economic development, strengthening entrepreneurship in the region and more.

“The MBLG’s primary objective hasn’t changed from last year: to accelerate the development of the Midlands as a cool region that attracts and retains top talent, produces vibrant job offerings, and provides necessary resources to improve livability for all people,” said David Pankau, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and chair of the MBLG’s Regional Competitiveness Initiative. “Over the first year of this effort, we’ve seen tremendous collaboration across the region. From local governments to leaders across the private sector, the dedication to a brighter future for the Midlands has led to action that will improve the lives of generations to come.”

EngenuitySC as Regional Collaboration Manager

The Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report is one of the primary deliverables from the EngenuitySC team every year, and they are proud to serve as the project management team behind MBLG's Regional Competitiveness Initiative.

"Four years in, this report continues to serve as a critical benchmarking tool for local leaders in business, government and education," says Meghan Hickman, executive director of EngenuitySC. "Understanding where we are is the first step in crafting a vision for the future. We have been blown away by the influence this report has had on decision-making and collaborative action. EngenuitySC is proud to produce this tool, but it is clear there is still work to be done. We stand ready to play our part in making the Midlands more competitive – a place we can all be proud to call home!” 

A public-private partnership that manages some of the most impactful initiatives in the Midlands region, EngenuitySC is guided by a board of highly engaged community and business leaders. The EngenuitySC board is steered by founding co-chairs Steve Benjamin, Mayor of Columbia, S.C. and Dr. Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, under the leadership of current board chair Paul Livingston of Richland County Council. Find out more about EngenuitySC at

This year marks the fourth year in which EngenuitySC’s Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report has been made public. It will be published as an insert in Columbia Regional Business Report on February 12, 2018. 

The launch of the 2017 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report is part of EngenuitySC’s inaugural Midlands Regional Competitiveness Week presented by BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. Complete details for events held during Competitiveness Week can be found at

See below for report summary, and find more info, in addition to the full report, via this link:   




EngenuitySC’s 2017 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report


Overview of Results:


1. Talent                                                                                                        

Overall index rank: tied for #6 of 10

Index value 91 (up from 87 last year)

Positive Trends

  • Percentage of workers with an associate’s degree increased; Columbia is best among our peers at 9.1%. This indicates a workforce well-prepared to fill positions in manufacturing and IT-related careers.
  • Our overall index value and position in the rankings rose, despite slipping in several indicators.

Negative Trends

  • GDP per worker decreased over last year ($94,107 to $93,971).
  • Percentage of STEM degrees awarded decreased (21.15% to 19.46%), though ranking stayed the same and still above U.S. average.
  • Percentage of knowledge workers decreased (18.64% to 18.34%) and is below the national average; ranking decreased from 3rd to 5th.
  • Percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree decreased (31.7% to 30.8%).
  • Foreign-born talent slipped, though our rank remained the same. We’re far below national average, much like most of the Southeast.

What’s next:

  • Expand and encourage the development of young professionals in community leadership by working with the Midlands Business Leadership Group (MBLG) to encourage the preservation or creation of board seats for young leaders by major, board-driven organizations and commissions in the region.
  • Create a talent retention initiative with structured programming targeting Columbia’s interns, including facilitated networking, access to business leaders, local connections and a platform for feedback.
  • Ensure today’s students understand the needs of tomorrow’s careers by pursuing strategies for greater alignment of business and school district leadership.
  • Begin developing a shared regional jobs platform, enabling job-seekers to easily find and connect to local companies.

2. Innovative Capacity

Overall index rank: #7 of 10

Index value 72 (up from 62 last year)

Positive Trends:

  • Total research and development awards increased over last year.
  • R&D expenditures jumped once more, to $257,000 per 1000 people, as USC continues to grow as a major research university in fields such as public health, aerospace and energy.

Negative Trends:

  • The number of SBIR and STTR awards decreased and remains below the national average on a population basis, though Columbia companies such as ZillionInfo (geodata analytics and optimization) and MagAssemble (nanomanufacturing) received large awards this year.

What’s next:

  • Build innovation into the K-12 experience by developing a regional internship and apprenticeship program at the high school level with high-tech companies.
  • Create corporate partnerships to leverage our largest companies’ collective buying power to negotiate the development of college-level co-op programs with suppliers to work on innovative projects in Columbia.
  • Develop research-oriented asset maps of the University of South Carolina and Midlands Technical College to aid economic developers and prospective companies in identifying resources, areas of expertise, lab space and equipment needed for R&D and innovative activity.

3. Entrepreneurial & Business Environment

Overall index rank: #9 of 10

Index value 90 (up from 88 last year)

Positive Trends

  • Proprietors’ Income Share increased by 11%, indicative of greater entrepreneurial success in the region.
  • Columbia continues to have a higher-than-average level of small business activity, with a greater number of successful small-to-midsize establishments than the national average.
  • The index as a whole increased, though it continues to slip in the rankings.

Negative Trends

  • Business density decreased, meaning there are fewer early-stage companies and greater consolidation within large companies.
  • The share of employment in business services, an indicator of the support ecosystem for entrepreneurs and for small business, decreased more rapidly locally than the national average.

What’s next:

  • Create a one-stop shop – both physical and digital – for the region’s entrepreneurs to easily access all licenses, permits and other resources needed to start and grow successful businesses.
  • Continue to work collaboratively with local governments to address the cost and ease of doing business, including taxes, permitting costs, processing times and utility costs.
  • Create a collaborative environment between downtown development groups and government to ensure prioritization and follow-through on key projects.
  • Pursue avenues to reduce the impact of untaxable government property, easing the burden for taxpayers.

4. Industry Clusters

Overall index rank: #8 of 10

Index value 129 (up from 125 last year)

Positive Trends:

  • The percentage of employment in traded clusters increased, signaling a region more competitive at the global scale - while traded clusters make up less than one third of total jobs, they generate half or more of all income and almost all innovation.
  • The concentration of employment in top five occupations decreased, indicating greater diversity of employment opportunities.

Negative Trends:

  • Employment concentration in high-wage occupations, those with average pay above $43,500 - slipped – in line with the Columbia area’s longer-term decrease in income relative to national levels.

What’s Next:

  • Leverage the red-hot insurance tech industry through iTs|SC, Columbia’s insurance technology and services cluster, to bring new companies into the region and launch innovative startups.
  • Organize the region's fast-growing pharmaceuticals industry, led by companies such as Nephron, a woman-owned corporation deeply involved in the community, and Ritedose, to collaborate, innovate and generate greater economic impact with a local focus.
  • Use the region’s strong military presence as an asset in attracting major defense industry suppliers and contractors.
  • Conduct interviews through an existing-industry program with the region’s largest employers, fastest-growing companies and innovative leaders to capture missed opportunities, identify new ideas and spur entrepreneurship.

5. Livability

Overall index rank: #4 of 10

Index value 102 (down from 107 last year)

Positive Trends:

  • Columbia is growing 36% faster than the national average in employment in arts, entertainment and recreation.
  • We continue to have a well-above-average number of physicians, indicative both of growing research and high-tech medicine and of access to neighborhood care.
  • Our cost of living decreased relative to the nation as a whole, indicating a great environment for people to live and for businesses to locate in. Columbia’s cost of living is slightly higher than that of our peers, however.

Negative Trends:

  • Our average commute time continues to increase, ticking up by 20 seconds – a symptom of dispersed growth – though it's still shorter than the national average.
  • While we saw slight improvement over last year’s national ranking, our place in the Gallup Wellbeing Index – a comprehensive index for how people in a region believe they’re doing – dropped among our peers.

What’s Next:

  • Complete the development of the Lexington and Richland County Regional Waterfront Park in a way that tells the story and history of the area, generating private development while providing a top recreational asset.
  • Coordinate marketing and branding for the region, both internally and externally – helping residents tell their own city’s story while attracting visitors to our world-class attractions, dining and entertainment.
  • Implement recommendations to make major downtown streets safer and friendlier to cross, connecting Columbia’s entertainment and business districts through a seamless feel.

Find the full report online here:

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