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Columbia Business Monthly

The public sector is king in Richland, but manufacturing, finance, and tech are rising

By Dustin Waters

Caught between the booming economies of Greenville and Charleston, Richland County now finds itself looking to stand front and center among Palmetto State metros. 

With the South Carolina Statehouse, the University of South Carolina, and the U.S. Army’s largest initial training facility in Fort Jackson, Richland County has historically been home to a strong public sector. But currently, focus has shifted to bolstering two rapidly growing private industries: manufacturing and financial and insurance technology.

Currently, Richland County is home to almost 20,000 employees working in finance and insurance. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina employs around 6,500 alone followed by Colonial Life and AFLAC collectively employing almost another 2,000. 

Clustered in the Columbia area alone are more than 15,000 jobs falling into the category of insurance technology. For local economic developers, this thriving knowledge economy possesses an incredible amount of potential—and requires a great deal of careful consideration. 

“There are a lot of companies here in that market all working in that area. We’re in the process of trying to understand that sector better and figure out how we can help the current companies grow and prosper here,” says Richland County economic director Jeff Ruble, who is currently vetting potential consultants to lead studies and help develop strategies to better serve the local IT sector. “We will also figure out what skill sets those really represent and what other companies out there in the U.S. or even globally need to be here. How do we grow that general area?”

Also a key focus moving forward is Richland County’s incredibly diverse manufacturing base. Among the area’s local standout firms are medical instrument manufacturer Ritedose, Chinese fiberglass producer Jushi, and HVAC equipment manufacturer Trane. Employing more than 300 workers, Ritedose serves as a notable competitor to neighboring Lexington County’s Nephron Pharmaceuticals. According to Ruble, Jushi is currently in the process of expanding to 800 employees, while Trane looks to ramp local operations up to 700 workers. 

In order to supply these sectors with the trained workers they need and attract more companies looking to expand, Ruble intends to build upon one of Richland County’s main strengths—a young, well-educated population. 

“What we tell people is that labor is the key. Talent. People. After all the tax incentives go away, if you don’t have a good workforce, you’re shot,” he says. “Your company is only as good as your workforce. If labor isn’t your No. 1 consideration, you’re probably making a mistake. Companies now are looking for talent, and what we have here in our Columbia market is a ton of talent.”

Almost one-fourth of Richland County’s population is between the ages of 20-34. The area is also home to 63,148 residents with a bachelor’s degree and more than 41,000 residents with a graduate or professional degree. But while Richland County may feature a wealth of young talent, the main challenge is keeping it. All too often, the area’s potential young professionals graduate and immediately move to cities they see as more attractive, either socially or professionally. 

“When you think about a kid getting out of school, 22, 23 years old, you do want a quality job opportunity, but as much as anything you want to live somewhere where it’s fun to live,” Ruble acknowledges. “A lot of kids are moving places just because they want to live there.”

Whether this means Charlotte, Atlanta, or maybe even in-state options like Greenville and Charleston, Ruble believes the solution to retaining Richland County’s local talent is creating better jobs, particularly lower-level positions in the knowledge economy that can serve as stepping stones for new graduates. It also means marketing Richland County as a fun place to live. 

As a part of this multi-pronged approach, the county office of economic development has been focused on developing industrial parks. Ruble says this year is sure to bring big things in this arena. His goal is to attract a big-name economic driver. After seeing what BMW has done for Greenville and Boeing and Volvo have done for the Charleston-North Charleston area, Columbia is looking to gain a big brand name. 

Meanwhile, the economic development office is also leading an initiative to reconcile the efforts of all the separate organizations marketing the Columbia area. This means ensuring that branding and messaging are more unified for the area and marketing efforts aren’t made redundant. Because Richland County groups have enough competition without working against themselves. 

“Sometimes people in Columbia will look at Greenville and Charleston and see greener pastures,” says Ruble. “We’re trying to change that attitude. We want people to appreciate Columbia because it’s a good place. It’s a good place to live.”