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Columbia Business Monthly

Fairfield County: Unemployment is comparatively high in Fairfield, but leaders are training workers and hope to woo an OEM

Dec 07, 2018 11:15AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By David Dykes

In Fairfield County, the fight for economic prosperity is being waged on several fronts.

The county is located in the central part of South Carolina on Interstate 77 with five major interstates within an 85-mile radius. Additionally, one of the nation’s most effective and productive deep-water ports is just 138 miles away in Charleston.

The county’s jobless rate in August was 5.8 percent, up from 5.6 percent a month earlier, but still below Bamberg County, the state’s worst at 7.7 percent. Fairfield County’s labor force totaled 9,870, with 9,297 working and 573 unemployed, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW). In August, there were 140 job openings, an increase from July’s 113.

It also has been very much a commuters’ county. In 2014, 77 percent commuted to jobs outside Fairfield County, part of the Columbia metropolitan area, while in 2010, 47 percent worked in another county.

Today, the county’s greatest need is good-paying jobs with opportunities to advance, says Terry Vickers, president of the Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce. 

“Our current leadership is working toward that,” she says. “They have a lot of irons in the fire.”

The county has a well-educated workforce, with more than 80 percent holding high school diplomas and many having technical school certificates or college diplomas, says Ty Davenport, the county’s economic development director.

But it faces challenges evident everywhere. “We don’t have 100 trained metalworkers walking around looking for a job. Nobody does,” Davenport says. “We need for our young adults to be trained in skills like CNC machinery operations, engineering, all those things.”

Four major local layoffs in about a year have driven up the county’s unemployment rate. In July 2017, textile maker DuraFiber announced it would close its Winnsboro plant, putting 200 people out of work. That was another blow to the state’s beleaguered textile industry.

Dr. Barrie Kirk, provost of Midlands Technical College, says that within the last decade, college and county officials were told there was a local lack of well-trained workers, so they jointly opened the MTC Fairfield Campus.

“Obviously, we felt education was a key component to the growth of Fairfield County or we wouldn’t be there,” she says.

The school offers training and educational opportunities, and there are apprenticeship programs for several occupations across multiple industries. 

In addition, it sponsors events such as a free community workforce expo for people to talk to employers that are hiring, receive job placement and resume assistance, and learn about careers in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, information technology, and other growing industries.

Through its Center for Entrepreneurial Success, MTC helps aspiring business owners navigate the difficult, and often complex, path of taking an idea and turning it into a sustainable and profitable venture. The center was founded in 2016.

And the Fairfield Central High School Success Center is a joint partnership between the school and MTC. It connects Fairfield County parents and students with local employers to provide career information, professional networking, and work experience for students. 

Still, recent developments threaten to turn the county’s labor market upside down.

The Element Electronics plant in Winnsboro nearly shut down because of tariffs on Chinese imports, a move that would have put dozens out of work. The company has since received a tariff exclusion. 

Meanwhile, the abandoned Virgil C. Summer construction project in Jenkinsville has cast a shadow over the economics of nuclear power. 

Element and S.C. Electric & Gas Co. are among Fairfield County’s largest employers. SCE&G is the principal subsidiary of SCANA Corp., the primary partner in the abandoned nuclear project. SCANA shareholders have voted to merge the company with Virginia-based Dominion Energy.

“At Midlands Technical College, everything we do is focused on the workforce needed in this local community,” Kirk says. “If [employers] need employees with skills that we are not currently preparing the students for, then we are always looking to adjust and change and grow as the community grows.” 

One critical step forward, education officials say, came recently when Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill allowing the state’s technical colleges to offer an applied baccalaureate degree in advanced manufacturing technology. 

The need for the educational option was voiced by some of the state’s strongest manufacturing employers, including Michelin, GE, and Bosch Rexroth. Supporters say the program will prepare graduates to assume technical and managerial leadership positions in the growing global manufacturing sector that is driving South Carolina’s economic strength.

Kirk says MTC officials are beginning discussions for such a program.

County officials and business leaders also hope an industrial mega-site off I-77 will be a corporate and jobs draw. 

The site is approximately 1,200 acres at the northeast quadrant of the I-77 and Hwy 34 intersection. It was purchased by the state and county and designed to attract one large, industrial user or OEM (original equipment manufacturer), similar to a Volvo Cars or BMW Manufacturing, that will invest more than $500 million and employ more than 500 people.