Richland County: In Richland County, workforce development requires a hard-working squad of local and state players
Dec 07, 2018 11:34AM
By Kathleen Maris
By Vincent Harris
There are a lot of individual pieces to discuss with when we talk about workforce development in our state.
We can talk about the string of first-rate technical schools that help train future workers in a whole host of occupations.
We can talk about the city, county, and state offices, like Richland County’s Office of Economic Development, created to help bring new businesses into the area or help the expansion of existing businesses, thus creating more jobs and the need for more employees.
And we can talk about organizations that split the difference between the tech schools and the city or county agencies, organizations like readySC, that create specific training programs for different companies who need new employees and then recruit those employees through a mix of aggressive marketing strategies.
Those are some of the individual players in the field of workforce development all across South Carolina. But what’s far more important than these organizations and offices individually is how they work together to build a fully trained and prepared group of workers who can walk into a new or expanding business with entry-level knowledge on their first day. The connections between these different agencies form the backbone of a healthy crop of employees that can staff a large company and help it excel.
In Richland County, the connection between their Office of Economic Development and the readySC program provides a great incentive for companies to look at the Midlands as a profitable new frontier.
The Office of Economic Development, which is run by Director Jeff Ruble, is focused on recruiting and maintaining industry in Richland County. It’s partially because of their efforts that a wide range of companies, from BlueCross BlueShield of S.C. (more than 6,000 employees) to the manufacturing company Jushi USA (which began the process of hiring more than 400 employees for its new fiberglass manufacturing plant last summer), and Verizon Wireless (whose Elgin call center employs more than 1,100 people), have brought their businesses to the county.
Ruble says that when his department speaks with companies interested in coming to Richland County, the topic of available workforce is just as important as tax incentives or any other carrots they might be able to offer.
“Generally, our advice to them is that it’s going to be the workforce that determines whether you’re going to be a success or failure,” Ruble says. “We tell them that if labor’s not No. 1, you’re probably making a mistake. But most companies ask the questions about labor with or without that advice; they want to know everything under the sun.”
Ruble says that the Office of Economic Development maintains a constantly updated database of Richland County’s available workforce to provide to prospective new companies, but it’s not just about raw numbers; companies like TCube Solutions (an IT service firm in Columbia acquired by Capgemini, a French firm with a new home in the BullStreet District) or Westinghouse Electric want well-trained workers, and that’s where readySC comes in.
“What we do with readySC is offer a soup-to-nuts training solution for a company’s startup workforce,” says Brad Neese, associate vice president of economic development, readySC.
ReadySC is a state-funded service that is a division of the S.C. Technical College System. Once a company has decided to open a new location in Richland County or expand a current location (as Lexington’s Michelin plant has done several times), readySC jumps in to train prospective employees at no cost to the companies. They accomplish this with a strategy that Neese refers to as “discover, design, and deliver.”
“Even in the confidential phase when a company is working with the Department of Commerce or working with a local economic developer, readySC presents our services to that company,” Neese says. “We begin with the discovery phase: What does this company need from its startup workforce?”
Neese and his staff will often visit a company’s other locations to get an idea of what those needs are, then move into the “design” phase.
“We work with the company to create their customized training program,” he says. “That could mean anything from pre-hire training so that the company can understand what the candidates look like or post-hire training up to an entry-level requirement. But it also includes designed outreach and marketing efforts. Then we deliver a workforce training solution for that specific company.”
Sometimes, the training instructors for these tailored programs will be pulled from schools like Midlands Tech (with Richland County’s Manager of Existing Business Kim Mann serving as a liaison with the school). Sometimes, readySC provides its own. And sometimes, the companies use their own trainers, with readySC reimbursing their costs.
Thanks to the foundational work that the Office of Economic Development has done by the time the training process begins, Neese says that readySC doesn’t have to worry about misspending the state’s money on ill-advised business ventures.
“When Jeff comes to us, we know that project has been vetted,” Neese says. “We know that we’re not committing state dollars towards a project that’s not sustainable.”
Neese says the level of economic recovery in the Midlands since the 2008 economic crash has made marketing and social media communication more important than ever in terms of attracting prospective employees.
“We’re using every medium we can to get the word out,” he says. “At 3.5 percent unemployment, you’ve got to use every avenue you can get to people. It’s a competitive market, and these companies want to do everything they can to get in front of as many people as they can. You wouldn’t believe how effective Facebook is, but we also use your traditional radio, TV, and billboards. We also have S.C. Tech Jobs, our job board (located on readySC’s website), where we post all of these jobs from the companies we’re working with.”
Neese says that in 2017, around 50,000 people applied for jobs that they found listed on S.C. Tech Jobs.
Neese’s comments echo Mann when she discusses how companies must market themselves in the Midlands now more than ever.
“We have lots of programs to build our workforce, whether it be through the technical colleges, apprenticeships, or job fairs, but companies have to be open to showcasing themselves,” Mann says. “They can’t just sit there and expect the individual to come to them. They’ve got to get out into the community; they’ve got to get out into spotlight and let individuals know why they want to work for that company. They’ve got to open their doors to local high school students and provide tours of their factories to build their own pipeline. That’s how we’re going to fill those jobs down the line.”