From TaylorMade golf balls to medical device manufacturer Abbott, Pickens finds success in diversityMar 04, 2019 12:05PM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dustin Waters
Diverse opportunities in advanced manufacturing have been the key to success in Pickens County, where the pressure to maintain a highly skilled workforce remains constant.
Home to one of the region’s top engineering programs at Clemson University, Pickens is also lucky enough to be situated between engineering powerhouses in Georgia Tech and N.C. State University. This location has served the county well in terms of recruiting success since turning its sights to speciality device manufacturing around 15 years ago.
Among the area’s leading companies are Champion Aerospace, cardiac rhythm management device manufacturer Abbott, and leading fire suppression system company Reliable Automatic Sprinkler.
Reliable’s most recent expansion of the company’s world manufacturing headquarters in Pickens County grew its local footprint to 452,000 square feet, bringing in around $23 million in capital investments and creating 100 new jobs.
TaylorMade Golf Company is another big name to recently expand into Pickens. Joining the firm in the county: era-contact USA, a global manufacturing leader in electrical railway coupling, and hose binding product manufacturer Safeplast, both of which established their North American manufacturing headquarters in Pickens County.
Other local standouts include software developer KeyMark, robotics engineer and manufacturer J.R. Automation, and United Tool and Mold, whose $11.1 million local expansion was just completed.
“We learned our lesson well, as probably most of the Southeast did. Probably the way Detroit did. Probably the way Cleveland, Pittsburg, and Youngstown learned their lesson. That lesson is shame on you if you allow your economy to get leveraged on one industry,” says Ray Farley, executive director of economic development with Alliance Pickens. “Here, it was textiles. In Pittsburg, it was steel. In Detroit, it was automotive.
“Well, the difference between mice and men is that you put a mouse into a maze, and they’re just going to bump their head one time, then they’ll learn not to go down that path anymore. We learned something from watching those mice.”
Of course, relying on a diverse array of highly technical manufacturers to fuel your local economy comes with its own set of challenges—namely, providing skilled local workers who can fulfill the needs of the area’s key industries. This task becomes even more troublesome as the unemployment rate in Pickens County currently sits just below the state average at 3.1 percent. Also consider that 84.7 percent of Pickens County residents age 25 and older obtain a high school diploma or higher, compared to the state average of 86.5 percent.
With incredible foresight, Pickens County began focusing on local workforce development in 2008. Expecting a strong demand for workers once the economy rebounded from the recession, economic developers began working with students as young as elementary school—as well as parents, teachers, and guidance counselors—to increase the volume and velocity of young people pursuing disciplines in STEM manufacturing.
“We were fortunate that we got ahead of the curve a little bit on workforce development in trying to make sure that our existing employers had the depth and breadth of technically skilled labor that they were going to need when the economy bounced back,” Farley says.
Of the three full-time employees at Alliance Pickens, one is permanently situated in a local high school so the group can closely monitor rising talent and better target what is needed to bridge the gap between the classroom and a successful career for their “scholar technicians.” This includes a focus on work-based learning experiences, like internships and apprenticeships, to provide students with hands-on experience and mentorship from trained professionals.
This ongoing effort in STEM education blossomed into the establishment of a best-in-class technical high school that was constructed around five years ago: the Pickens County Career and Technology Center.
There, advisory councils specialized in each STEM discipline help direct instructors in the up-to-date skills students need to learn to remain competitive in the modern job market. This direct pipeline to the local manufacturing industry has proven beneficial for business in Pickens County—and wildly popular among students looking to obtain a career in the area.
“A lot of what some locations around the country may call vocational sectors, they can’t get children to come to school there. Here, it’s getting competitive to get seats in our technical high school to study STEM manufacturing endeavors,” says Farley. “What are we talking about here? We’re talking about robotics, automation, mechatronics, welding, machine tool technologies, health care. All of these fields are fields for which the jobs are in high demand.”