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Columbia Business Monthly

Lexington County: Training Days Finding skilled employees is increasingly difficult, but these groups are improving the workforce pipeline

Dec 07, 2018 11:21AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Emily Stevenson

Low unemployment? That’s typically considered a good thing. But add in an aging workforce and a lack of trained individuals, and companies are feeling the pinch, particularly for highly skilled positions. 

While many Lexington County companies try to lure employees from other states or other industries, the answer to a company’s staffing problem may just lie in their own building.

“It’s developing your own internal workforce,” says Jeremy Catoe, business solutions director at Midlands Technical College. “It’s not always hiring. Sometimes it’s identifying employees you already have who could be more easily replaced.” 

For instance, a company that has an opening for a web developer may find it difficult to hire a person for that position. But there might be an entry-level employee on staff who’s been with the company for a few years and knows the business. It’s easier for a company to “train up” the entry-level employee to the web developer role and to find a new entry-level employee. 

Catoe works with community partners—private sector, government agencies, military—to discern their talent needs and match Midlands Tech’s resources to those needs. 

GIS, an IT company that handles background screening, is just one of many companies that has utilized the college’s resources to help train existing employees. 

David Pfaehler, program director for computer and information technology at Midlands Tech, says that their big need is senior level developers.

“They want people with lots of experience, lots of knowledge, to come in and be productive right away,” Pfaehler says. “Those folks just don’t exist in our market. We’re not Washington, New York, Charlotte.”

Instead, Pfaehler helped the company undertake incumbent worker training, which they have been doing for almost two years now. The company used grants to help fund the training, which Midlands Tech catered to their needs. 

“It’s given us the ability, when we were looking to hire IT staff, to know we had an opportunity to provide training for them,” says Theresa La Roe, IT manager in the IT Project Management Office at GIS. “It’s given other individuals the ability to get promoted into another position, the little extra requirements they need to meet the experience requirements for the job.”

La Roe mentioned a product owner who had previously been a developer with the company but moved out of development into ownership. He then moved back to being a senior developer. He took a class the company offered, and it provided the confidence he needed to know he’d be successful at his day-to-day job.

But the biggest benefit to GIS still remains a skilled workforce. 

“The main importance is that it helps us to develop our junior and mid-level technology staff so we can bring in lower-level staff,” says La Roe. “It enhances their skill and knowledge and the ability to serve our customers and perform the job they need to do.”

The decision to undertake incumbent employee training is not always an easy one. For starters, it takes existing employees away from their jobs — sometimes for a significant chunk of time.

“It requires a commitment from the company, because they have to send their employees to training, and some of our training is intensive,” says Pfaehler. “When we put that plan in place, GIS is making that commitment, and we’ve been able to make an impact in their workforce, and their employees have been excited about it.” 

Another benefit of employee training is that younger members of the workforce want to cultivate an intentional career, not just work to pay the bills.

“The younger generation, the Millennials, are looking for more of a career path,” says Pfaehler. “If you can show someone how they’ll progress over the next few years, what the potential would look like, that makes more sense to them than just getting a job.”

Another way to meet that desire, and to provide companies with a guaranteed and trained workforce, is an apprenticeship.

Michelin is a company that has embraced the apprenticeship program across the state and has seen great success. They reach out to students who are still in high school and show them what a career at Michelin can look like and what the benefits are. After high school graduation, Michelin hires students to go to school in the morning to earn an electrical engineering technology (EET) degree, while in the afternoon and evenings they’re at the plant working as part-time employees, shadowing more advanced technicians. 

“That program has been really successful,” says Catoe. “They start identifying kids while they’re still in high school and recruit them almost like a football team. If you wait for the students to graduate, somebody has already hired them. If they don’t get to them early and sell them on why Michelin is going to be the right path, they’ll lose them to a four-year school or IT, healthcare, or other industries.”

Although Midlands Tech works with many companies to provide training, Catoe says Michelin understands that there are principles their employees can learn through the EET program, but the company will never be able to afford to set up a Michelin-specific line to repair machinery. They see an apprenticeship as a melding of the two. 

Despite these successes, replenishing the workforce will be a long-term project.

“The workforce pipeline does not appear to be getting better anytime soon,” he says. “As happy as we are that the economy is improving, it’s going to keep making the workforce situation harder. These folks need to be conscious of what they’re doing to prepare for that. I think looking upstream is the answer.”