Samsung will continue to be an economic powerhouse, but solar jobs are on the way
Mar 06, 2019 12:22PM
● By Kathleen Maris
By Dustin Waters
Continued expansion among its manufacturing base and new investments in solar energy are all part of Newberry County’s plan for a brighter year in 2019.
After just one year in Newberry County, Samsung’s $380 million home appliance facility has a large presence in the community as manufacturing leads growth in the local economy. Samsung employed 500 new workers on the plant’s opening day, and that figure is expected to surpass 1,000 by 2020.
“Their growth has been unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. At the same time, we are quite proud of some of our other manufacturers. Komatsu has been in Newberry for almost 20 years now,” says Rick Farmer, director of Newberry County Economic Development. “Komatsu’s the No. 2 heavy equipment manufacturer in the world, behind Caterpillar. Here in Newberry, they make front-loaders for forklifts. They added over 50 people in the last year or so. They just announced a $5.5 million expansion over the next five years, so business is gangbusters at Komatsu. We’re quite proud of them.”
According to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, Newberry County’s manufacturing industry far outpaces other local industries in terms of overall workforce size, employing more than 5,000 people or almost 14 percent of the county population.
While the manufacturing sector is quite strong in Newberry County, Farmer recognizes that the local workforce is stretched thin as unemployment numbers continue to dip drastically low. As a result, the county has taken new steps to avoid stifling economic growth.
“Newberry County is one of the lowest unemployment rates in a low unemployment state. The thing about it is, that’s not a Newberry problem. That’s an everywhere problem. Everybody is having trouble finding good workers,” says Farmer. “We’re working with a group called Newberry Workforce Development. It’s a private sector group that has recently sprung up to help fill the gaps in workforce development and speed that effort along.”
According to Scott Cain, Newberry County Councilman and chairman of the Newberry Workforce Development Co., the county’s unemployment rate is hovering in the low 3 percent range, while just over 16 percent of Newberry’s workers are considered underemployed. This means that one-sixth of the workforce would be better suited for full-time employment or a higher-paying position.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just over 80 percent of Newberry residents age 25 and older have at least a high school diploma, compared to the state average of almost 87 percent.
In terms of higher education in Newberry County, almost 23 percent of locals obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, while almost 9 percent earn a graduate degree.
To help ensure that the county is producing an adequate number of workers with the right skills for the local employers, Newberry Workforce Development has targeted students in the 8th and 9th grade, recently holding the Laurens-Newberry Workforce Showcase to expose young adults to the variety of jobs available in the area. This effort has also extended to work-based training in the classroom that introduces students to what local workplaces actually look like and train students based on what local employers expect their future needs to be, while being able to adapt the curriculum based on changes in technology and other advancements.
“What we’re doing is facilitating the marriage of all of our industrial requirements to our educational system. Our educators, they’re doing a great job, an outstanding job. But they don’t have time to go out to all our 600 or 700 factories and employers in our county and ask, ‘What do they need?’” says Cain. “Vice versa, the companies, even the big ones, don’t have the time to go into schools and say, ‘I need this specific skill set. I need people trained this way.’”
With a renewed focus on workforce development, Newberry County Economic Development’s Farmer expects 2019 to be a strong year for the local economy, with a dozen or so active projects already in the pipeline going forward. This includes several ventures into solar energy production.
“Solar is actually good for the time that we are in because they don’t really have any workforce demands,” says Farmer. “A good solar project will take a piece of property that the county makes $2,000 or $3,000 worth of revenue on each year and turn it into a piece of property that nets $100,000 or $200,000 in revenue a year. And it doesn’t tax the community services either.”
He adds, “We’ve got several expansions in the works. Our companies are always on the move for competitive reasons, for growth reasons. Business is good, so we’re working quite a lot of expansions right now.”