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Columbia Business Monthly

Elevate Midlands 2024 Shows Healthy Economic Indicators

May 01, 2024 09:29AM ● By C. Grant Jackson

Developing and retaining talent to maintain a vibrant and skilled workforce is critical to the economy of the Midlands of South Carolina and will be the primary focus for the Midlands Business Leadership Group’s Regional Competitiveness Council moving forward. 

That decision comes out of the Elevate Midlands 2024 report that provides a gauge of the economic health of the Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Calhoun, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lexington, Richland and Saluda counties. The full report may be accessed at

The report shows the Midlands doing well on six competitiveness indices with the exception of talent, defined as “a region’s ability to attract, develop, and maintain a vibrant skilled workforce.” Scott Graves, president of BlueCross BlueShield of SC and chair of the competitiveness council, said, “We've got to be accountable to what the data is telling us. Obviously, there's some areas that we need to improve. And one of those is the area of talent development and retention.”

The Elevate Midlands 2024 report shows the region ranks 11th out of 12th on the Talent Index. That is based on gross domestic product per worker, with the Midlands at 11th and average STEM salary per worker (adjusted for cost of living) where the Midlands comes in at 10th. Raleigh ranked first in both GDP per worker and STEM salaries. Charleston was fourth on GDP and eighth on STEM, with Greenville 10th and ninth.

As a result, for the next couple of years, Graves told area business leaders assembled for the launch of the 2024 report in March at the USC Pastides Alumni Center in Columbia, “we are going to essentially go all-in on talent development and retention.”

The Competitiveness Council will still do the full annual report, Graves said, providing the comparison data to show what is changing in the Midlands economy. But, he said, “we're going to dive deep on talent. We're going pull some additional data into the report, and we're going to try to either enhance or create initiatives to improve the Midlands as it relates to talent retention.” 

For Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann, enhancing the region’s talent pool comes down to focusing on the institutions of higher education in the city. 

“Our students in this community are our future,” Rickenmann said in remarks delivered at the launch. “I say this all the time, and people laugh at me. I'll take 60,000 students over the ocean any day of the week. That is our future. That is our talent.” 

To better understand and engage with college and university students, the mayor established the Intercollegiate Engagement Council shortly after taking office in 2022. The council is made up of students from the University of South Carolina, Benedict College, Allen University, Columbia College, Columbia International University and Midlands Technical College. 

Part of better integrating students into the larger community and the business community in particular is just doing simple things to make students feel comfortable and welcome, Rickenmann said. “We have all these students coming in the fall. We have never even put up a welcome banner. ‘Welcome students to the Midlands, welcome students to Columbia.’ We've never done that. Next year we're doing it because we need to embrace this is our future talent. And I think the more that we can embrace them, the more we show them the opportunities, the more they're going to stay here.”

Keeping more students in the Midlands after graduation is also about providing the kind of living environment that young people want, the mayor said. 

“A big part of that is we don't have the downtown living that they're looking for. They want to live, work, and breathe downtown with the ease of not having to commute. We've shied from going vertical for such a long time and we're changing that, changing our design guidelines and understanding where we are, because we're no longer 25 years back. We're looking forward and encouraging investment,” the mayor said. 

Elevate Midlands 2024

This is the tenth year for the annual competitiveness report produced by the Midlands Business Leadership Group, known as MBLG, and currently led by Lou Kennedy. CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals Co. In 2022, MBLG, which includes more than 60 business and community leaders, formed the Midlands Regional Competitiveness Council to oversee the collection of data and publication of the annual report. But Graves pointed out that the council’s mission isn’t just about doing the report -- it is about “what does it mean and how do we improve.”

The data collection is overseen by Dr. Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. Von Nessen presented the results of this year’s report at the Elevate Midlands 2024 launch event.

Elevate Midlands shows how the region is doing in six areas – Entrepreneurial and Business Environment, Industry Clusters, Innovative Capacity, Talent, Employment and Livability. The Midlands is compared in those areas with the peer MSAs of Richmond, Virginia; Lexington/Fayette, Kentucky; Winston Salem, North Carolina; Greensboro/ High Point, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Tallahassee, Florida; Greenville/Anderson/Mauldin, South Carolina; and Charleston/North Charleston, South Carolina; and Raleigh, North Carolina, which is considered an “aspirational” MSA.

The council says that “The Elevate Midlands report primarily allows us to observe the Columbia MSA’s long-term trends and compare them directly to trends we are seeing in cities with which we compete.” The data lags an average of 18 months and is gathered largely from “the most current and reliable sources possible such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.” 

For Elevate Midlands 2024, the data shows that the region has an “Existing Strength” in both “Entrepreneurial and Business Environment,” ranking third and in “Industry Clusters,” ranking sixth. “Emerging Growth” areas are seen in “Innovative Capacity,” eighth; “Employment,” eighth; and “Livability,” ninth.

TALENT – “An Opportunity for Growth”

But Talent, at 11th, is clearly an “Opportunity for Growth,” despite, as the report notes, that in 2023 WalletHub ranked Columbia as the fourth best city in the U.S. to start a career. And according to 2021 Census data Columbia ranked second among cities that gained the most Gen Z-ers ages 18 to 24, with a net gain of 11,640 Gen Z residents.

As the mayor pointed out, the Midlands has the opportunity to develop talent through the area’s universities and colleges, but you also have to keep that talent here. A survey taken primarily of MBLG and Competitiveness Council members revealed employers are being proactive in some areas to build and retain their workforce, providing benefits such as health and wellness programs, the opportunity for hybrid work and flexible work scheduling, and Employee Assistance Programs. 

While a lot of that is an outgrowth of the pandemic, one employee benefit that does not show up well is providing childcare or childcare subsidies. Only 6.7 percent of respondents said they offered that benefit. The need for companies to offer a childcare benefit is something that has come up more and more in conversations in South Carolina at the state level, Von Nessen said.

Providing that kind of benefit not only helps workers who have small children, but it can also help draw older workers back into the workforce many of whom started caring for grandchildren during the pandemic and have not returned to the workforce, Von Nessen said.

Entrepreneurial & Business Environment

The Entrepreneurial & Business Environment index looks at “a region’s relative ease of doing business and the strength of the support system for the startup, growth and maintenance of business.” The two components of the index are “employment in professional occupations” – that include business, finance, and computer-related occupations – and the “business establishment annual growth rate.” 

On employment in professional occupations, Columbia ranked fourth up from fifth in the 2022 ranking. Charleston ranked fifth, a one-position drop from 2022, and Greenville held a ranking of 11th. Tallahassee held on to the No. 1 ranking for 2022 and 2023.

For business establishment annual growth rate, Columbia ranked third, Charleston ranked first, and Greenville ranked 12th. 

This has been a strength of the Midlands for years, Von Nessen said, and “just reflects the business environment over all, how easy it is to start a business in the Midlands. It turns out that we rank fairly well,” he said. “We see more businesses being created in the Midlands relative to other regions.”

Industry Clusters

Industry clusters is an area where the Midlands also has “historically done well,” Von Nessen said. The Midlands ranked sixth, up from 10th in the 2022 ranking for what Von Nessen terms “high-impact clusters.” The index is defined as “a region’s ability to sustain and grow high-impact industries that are competitive on an international scale.” 

An industry cluster is a group of related industries that typically have overlapping businesses that are working together, particularly in a supply chain, Von Nessen explained. 

“Industry clusters are important. And it's especially important when a region has multiple thriving industry clusters for the purposes of diversification. The more industries that you have in a local area, that means the more insulated you are against risk,” Von Nessen said. 

The two measures of Industry Clusters are employment diversity – the concentration of employment in a region’s five largest industries – and the concentration of employment in high-wage industries.

The Midlands ranked sixth in employment diversity while Charleston ranked fourth and Greenville seventh. The Richmond, Virginia, MSA ranked first. The five largest Midlands industries are health care, retail trade, accommodation and food service, manufacturing, and administrative support.

“You want more employment diversity. We don’t want all our eggs in one basket,” Von Nessen said.

On concentration in high wage industries, the Midlands came in at eighth, but up from 12th in 2022. Charleston fell two places from eighth to 10th and Greenville fell third to seventh. Tallahassee, Florida, ranked first.

Innovative Capacity

On Innovative Capacity – “a region’s capacity to support the creation of new ideas, products and processes” – the Midland ranked eighth lagging behind Charleston at fifth and Greenville at sixth.

For this measure, the report looks at the awarding of federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants per 100,000 people.

SBIR and STTR are highly competitive federal government programs “that encourage domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research and Development programs with the potential for commercialization.”

Elevate 2024 pegs Innovative Capacity as an area of “Emerging Growth” for the Midlands and points to the state’s PowerSC program to improve electricity infrastructure as “one way the state is increasing innovative capacity.”


The Midlands ranked eighth on the Employment Index. The index uses two metrics: the one-year employment annual growth rate, and the five-year employment annual growth rate.

On the annual measure, the Midlands ranked ninth with Charleston taking the top spot and Greenville ranking third. On the five-year measure, the Midlands is seventh, Charleston second, and Greenville fourth. Richmond, Virginia, came in at No. 1.

The Midlands “has actually seen more appreciable employment growth locally here in the last several years, compared to the other 11 regions in the report.” Von Nessen said. “So, this is an area where we've been improving in recent years as a whole.” 


On “Livability,” defined as “a region’s quality of life and investment in its community,” the Midlands and Charleston tied for ninth of 12, and Greenville ranked sixth.

Livability actually looks at five individual measurements:

·        Share of Employment in Leisure & Hospitality

o   Charleston – 1

o   Greenville – 5

o   Columbia - 10

·        Growth of Leisure & Hospitality as a share of total employment

o   Knoxville – 1

o   Greenville – 2

o   Charleston – 4

o   Columbia - 7

·        Average Commute Time

o   Lexington-Fayette – 1

o   Greenville – 7

o   Columbia – 10

o   Charleston - 12

·        Cost of Living – All Items

o   Chattanooga – 1

o   Columbia – 7

o   Greenville – 8

o   Charleston - 12

·        Cost of Living – Housing

o   Winston-Salem – 1

o   Greenville – 6

o   Columbia – 7

o   Charleston – 12

Collaboration Key

Both Mayor Rickenmann and MBLG Chair Kennedy lauded what they see as a new spirit of collaboration that is key to helping the Midlands move forward.

That spirit of collaboration has not always been present, Rickenmann said. But “we're seeing collaboration like we've never seen.” 

The diverse listing of companies involved in producing the Elevate Midlands 2023 report “is a great illustration of how we win in the Midlands. This kind of cooperative spirit and collaboration is really the lifeblood of what we're trying to accomplish,” Kennedy said. “All of this cooperation and collaboration will serve to move us forward.”