Abbeville County: Increasing the number of skilled workers with an ambitious scholarship program
By Cindy Landrum
Abbeville County was on a hot streak in 2018.
ACS Manufacturing Inc., a Texas-based manufacturer that produces acoustical equipment enclosures, fuel tanks, turbine systems, and skids, announced it would open a 141,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the Lakelands Commerce Center.
It was the county's first new industry since 2015.
In September, Prysmian Group North America, a manufacturer of low-, medium-, and extra-high voltage electrical cables, announced it would invest $14 million to increase product manufacturing capacity at its Abbeville facility on Highway 28, the first to produce extra-high voltage cables in North America. The company said the expansion was necessary to meet the growing demand from its customers as they expand renewable energy production.
The county is working on ways to ensure manufacturing remains its leading employment sector and to keep the momentum going in 2019 and beyond.
Like many other counties across South Carolina, one of Abbeville County's biggest challenges is workforce, says Stephen Taylor, development services director for the Abbeville County Economic Development Partnership.
"It is a growing issue," he says. "We're always looking for ways to increase it."
The county's problem is two-fold, according to a 2016 economic development strategic plan formulated by the Abbeville County Economic Development Board.
First, the population is aging and young people are not staying in or moving to Abbeville County, which has seen its population drop from 26,258 in 2001 to an estimated 24,541 in 2018. Almost half of the county's workforce commutes to its job.
Second, the county's educational attainment isn't on par with regional and state averages. "Given that most jobs today require a higher skill level than a decade ago, this means that some of Abbeville County's citizens are not prepared to fill vacant jobs," the strategic plan notes. "The fact that SAT scores have been rising means there is an opportunity to develop the future workforce which will, in time, improve overall educational attainment."
Fortunately, there appears to be a solution in an innovative scholarship program: Abbeville Promise.
Backed by the Freshwater Coast Community Foundation, Abbeville Promise covers the cost of attending Piedmont Technical College for any high school graduate of Abbeville County. The Class of 2018 was the first that could take advantage of the program. In May, the foundation reached its $1.2 million fundraising goal to endow the scholarship fund through donations made by 72 families and 61 corporations.
"For a community our size to have a Promise campaign, that says a lot," Taylor said. "It speaks volumes."
In addition to the scholarship program, the Abbeville County Career Center has brought back its welding program because that's a skill needed by the county's manufacturers. In addition, a business and industry week will be held in the fall to promote manufacturing to Abbeville County youth.
"There's a lot of opportunity for our young people," Taylor said. "Manufacturing is alive and well in our community and the Upstate."
Taylor says the county is targeting the advanced manufacturing and automotive sectors. He says he's seen increased activity from the food industry, although Abbeville County hasn't landed any of those yet.
When it comes to pitching Abbeville County to potential industries, Taylor says location, leisure, and lifestyle are selling points.
Abbeville County has four-lane access to Interstates 85 and 26, providing easy access to neighboring metropolitan centers such as Greenville and Columbia, as well as the Inland Port in Greer. Highway 72 serves as an important artery for commercial trucking.
Outdoor recreation opportunities abound with several lakes within a 15-minute drive, plus Calhoun Falls State Park and Parson's Mountain Recreation Area.
"We have become a destination for the outdoors," Taylor says.
Abbeville also offers small-town living and historic charm, thanks in part to attractions like the Abbeville Opera House.
Taylor believes the county is more than ready when the next new manufacturer comes. There are eight industrial sites listed on the county economic development website, four of which are on Highway 72. The county also has a 60,000-square-foot spec building.
"We think it's important to be ready for the next industry that's looking for a place to call home," he said.