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Columbia Business Monthly

New study explores workforce development challenges along the I-77 corridor

By Richard Breen

A study of the workforce along Interstate 77 in South Carolina indicates that manufacturing and logistics firms in the region are not immune to market pressures brought on by low unemployment, but leaders there believe they can grow their way out of potential problems.

The South Carolina I-77 Alliance—an economic development organization that promotes Chester, Fairfield, Lancaster, Richland, and York counties—released a regional workforce study in December 2018. The study looked at all types of industries and workers and concluded the area boasted a young, well-educated workforce willing to commute to the best job opportunities.

“The South Carolina I-77 Alliance region has access to a large pool of skilled labor,” wrote the study’s authors, TIP Strategies Inc., a consulting firm with offices in Austin and Seattle. “As a destination for talent with a high-quality local workforce, the region is well positioned to continue its sustained growth.”

I-77 Alliance officials say the study validated anecdotal evidence about the regional workforce.

“It’s an affordable workforce, but it’s also a skilled workforce and a growing workforce,” says Christopher Finn, director of research and marketing for the organization.

While the region is adding jobs, it’s also adding workers, just not as quickly. The civilian labor force grew by nearly 30,000 over the last five years, while the number of jobs increased by 43,000, according to the study.

“Millennials are moving into the suburban counties,” says David Swenson, York County’s economic development director. “I know wage pressures are out there—everybody’s feeling it—so we’ll be monitoring that.”

The study also pointed out that continued economic success “will likely exacerbate some of the workforce challenges that employers in the region currently face.”

South Carolina’s unemployment rate in March was 3.2% compared to 3.8% nationally. Along I-77, rates ranged from a low of 3.2% in York County to 5.0% in Fairfield.

“Although labor has long been a consideration of corporate site location decisions, in the past few years the focus has been on the availability of skilled labor rather than the cost of labor,” the study reported.

In examining availability, the study looked at the number of jobs of a specific type in the region and the number of residents who work at that type of job. People commuting into and out of the region would help account for differences.

In job categories such as “office and administrative support,” there was a potential available workforce (more residents than current jobs) of nearly 7,000. But when it came to “production,” jobs outnumbered residents by 2,271. In “transportation and material moving,” there were 2,956 more jobs than residents.

Production is the fourth most common job category in the region. Transportation is fifth.

“This manufacturing workforce constraint is a nationwide problem and, in some ways, goes beyond manufacturing,” says Rich Fletcher, I-77 Alliance president and chief executive. “A lot of the communities in this area are trying to keep these workers in their home counties.”

The study counted 177,023 workers who live and work in the region, 151,853 who commute into the region, and 131,426 who commute out of the region. The number of people commuting out of the region to logistics jobs increased every year from 2009-15, peaking at 5,317. There is also a chronic net outmigration of manufacturing workers, numbering 2,973 in 2015.

“Transportation and warehousing, management of companies and enterprises, and manufacturing are the three sectors with the largest outflow of workers, on net, out of the five-county region,” the study reported.

Shutterfly Inc. has 400 machine operator and production leadership workers at its Fort Mill production facility. Sondra Harding, senior director of corporate communications, says the California-based company adds another 1,000 seasonal workers in November and December.

“We start by offering locally competitive pay and varying shift schedules to cater to the many different needs of our workforce population,” Harding says. “Once inside the business, we provide comprehensive skills training for our operators, and onsite leadership roles provide opportunity for upward mobility.”

I-77 employers reach into North Carolina as well as the greater Midlands for labor. Jeff Ruble, Richland County’s economic development director, gives the example of workers in Sumter County commuting to manufacturers in Eastover.

“A lot of companies on the outskirts of our county get workers from rural areas,” he says.

Midlands Technical College, which serves Fairfield, Richland, and Lexington counties, recently announced it was partnering with local high schools and businesses on a program that would accelerate coursework and provide work experience for students interested in manufacturing-related jobs such as mechatronics and welding.