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Columbia Business Monthly

Newberry County: Newberry tries new tactics to grow pool of qualified workers, including targeting middle schoolers

Dec 07, 2018 11:30AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Kristine Hartvigsen

Ask anybody in Newberry County what company is creating hundreds of local jobs. Unless they’ve been stuck in the elevator at the Opera House for a very long time, most folks will say Samsung, which continues to bring hundreds of jobs to the area with its home appliance manufacturing plant. 

It’s all very exciting, but officials say that hiring for those jobs is not as simple as having enough people to fill them. It’s about finding the right people with the right skills. And that’s where it can get complicated. Because communities all over the country are competing for qualified talent, creativity is a must. 

“We all need to do a better job in workforce development. There’s no doubt about that,” said Rick Farmer, director of economic development for Newberry County. Many initiatives have focused on college students and high-schoolers with mixed success. 

A relatively new idea is to target even younger schoolchildren — those in middle school. 

As a result, several organizations recently partnered to launch the inaugural Laurens and Newberry Counties Business and Industry Showcase, which took place October 9 at Piedmont Technical College’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Laurens. The partners included Newberry County Economic Development, Piedmont Technical College (PTC), the South Carolina Department of Commerce, Laurens County Development Corporation, Newberry County Chamber of Commerce, Western Piedmont Education Consortium, the School District of Newberry County, the Newberry Business Alliance, and Laurens County School Districts 55 and 56.

The showcase served as a well-timed opportunity to introduce students to different career opportunities in the region’s more prominent employment sectors. “We know they fill out Individualized Graduation Plans in middle school before they really know what they want to do,” Farmer says. 

More than 800 eighth-graders arrived on buses to participate in the event, stopping by individual tables to learn about the workforce world they will one day be a part of. Exhibitors included Samsung, ZF Transmissions, Greenville Health System, Alupress, Shaw Industries, AgSouth Farm Credit, and Norbord S.C. 

To the untrained eye, it may have looked a bit like herding cats, but it was organized chaos fueled by candy available on just about every table and swag that included ZF Transmissions drawstring bags, Samsung drinking cups, and all manner of pens. The students appeared to really enjoy the experience, made interactive by forms they carried to each booth to write down comments about what they had learned.

“This is our first intentional foray into true workforce development,” Farmer says. “We aren’t under the impression it will fix long-term problems. It’s just one strategy of many.”

Flexible Spaces, Flexible Strategies
When Samsung in 2017 announced its intention to build a $380 million manufacturing facility in Newberry, company officials began looking for a temporary location to train the first wave of hires. They turned to the S.C. Technical College System’s industry training program, readySC, to find training facilities they could use.

Piedmont Tech, one of the System’s 16 colleges, had training space available in its Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Laurens, only a short commute away in the next county. 

“Samsung used facilities at the CAM from October 2017 through March 2018,” said Rusty Denning, associate vice president for economic development at PTC. “But we continue to do training with them in other capacities, either on-site or on our Newberry Campus.”

Denning estimates that nearly 600 Samsung workers have received some training facilitated in partnership with PTC. The company expects to hire 1,000 employees by 2020. Tim Baxter, president and CEO of Samsung North America, has expressed many times that what normally would take a company 18 months to do took Samsung only six months. 

PTC is completing work on additional training space on its Newberry Campus that will open later this year. “With this new flex space, we will be able to better help new or expanding companies meet their training need,” Denning said.

Newberry County Councilman and Newberry Business Alliance member Scott Cain says that workforce issues have been a recurring topic of discussion. 

“Everyone has this problem. We are not unique,” Cain said. “For our community to grow, we need people employed in meaningful jobs. They have to have self-worth, and a good job does that.”

When unemployment was high, about 9 percent around 2010, finding workers was simpler. Now that the economy is recovering, Cain explains, there are lots of openings, but the jobs are more specialized and finding people with the right skills requires out-of-the box thinking. 

“Our current workforce is largely unemployed and underemployed. And we also have to consider the future employed,” he says. “This program gives students an opportunity to see what real-world jobs are like and what skills they must acquire to do them.”

Cain adds, “It’s exciting to be in the middle of it, because we are actually bringing everything together.”