Oconee County: Officials continue to focus on workforce development initiatives and attracting industryFeb 01, 2019 11:30AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dustin Waters
With an expanding manufacturing industry leading the way, Oconee County’s plan for success revolves around a multi-prong approach to workforce acquisition as well as continued efforts to further diversify the region’s local economy.
While Duke Energy remains Oconee County’s leading employer, manufacturing firms make up 10 of the region’s top-15 job providers, with many companies supplying parts for South Carolina’s automotive industry. This includes BorgWarner, the automotive transfer case manufacturer that employs around 900 locally.
According to Janet Hartman, interim executive director of the Oconee Economic Alliance, the county received more than $69 million in capital investments in 2018 alone. This includes JTEKT North America, producer of bearings and driveline components, which announced plans to expand their Oconee operations, including an investment of $19.4 million and the creation of 56 new jobs.
”It’s always a plus when we have an existing industry expand because it really shows that they’re happy with the business climate in the county and they feel they get the support they need and can continue to be successful here,” says Hartman.
Of course, with Oconee’s unemployment rate dropping to 3 percent in November, the most recent month for available data, the county faces the same problem as many other areas hoping to provide qualified talent for a growing number of positions. With the area’s average annual wage of $49,400, surpassing the statewide average by almost $4,000 is sure to aid in employee retention. However, Oconee County still plans to be proactive when it comes to workforce development and retention.
“Some of the innovative or creative things that we are doing here are, we partnered with our local school district, and we have a program called the NOW Program, which stands for Nurturing Oconee’s Workforce,” explains Hartman. “We partnered with the school district at our Hamilton Career Center, the vocational entity within our school district.
“Beginning in 2016, we started this program where we chose 30 students from the local high schools and entered them into the NOW Program, which really helped them build skills and awareness within the community as to what are some of the opportunities with our manufacturers.”
By allowing students to visit multiple industrial facilities while learning job interview techniques, the NOW Program provides a holistic approach to ensuring these students are prepared to compete in the workforce. In May, the two-year program graduated its first class of 18 students, many of which Hartman says found full- or part-time jobs in the local manufacturing industry.
In 2020, the Hamilton Career Center plans to open a vocational career training building inside one of the area’s three county-owned industrial parks. Operating alongside Tri-County Technical College’s recently opened Oconee campus, career center students will be able to receive dual credits from the neighboring institutions and possibly work part time or apprentice at one of the manufacturers within the park.
“That’s very unique. I think we’re the only one in the Southeast, possibly the country, that’s done that type of development within an industrial park set up for manufacturing,” says Hartman.
Oconee County is also looking to local small business to aid in diversifying the local economy, while also serving to attract more skilled workers to the area.
Initially launched in 2016 as a “buy local” campaign, the Think Oconee initiative launched a new website in August, with the focus on highlighting the local quality of life as a way to draw talent to the area. The overlap between celebrating small business diversity and highlighting local attractions is best exemplified by the county’s recent addition of two local craft breweries: Jocassee Valley Brewing Company and Keowee Brewing Company. Hartman says the Economic Alliance will also focus on the county’s lone incubator in 2019 to continue fostering aspiring small businesses locally.
“We do have to diversify the economy. Sometimes you have those startups that can turn into great businesses, but somebody has to give them that chance to start,” says Hartman. “We’re going to be looking at that in 2019, in addition to having three industrial parks where we have property available that we’ll be continuing to market and recruit industry to come look at. I think we’ll be busy.”