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Greenville Business Magazine

Taking a Look at Education and Workforce Challenges in South Carolina

Mar 01, 2024 09:33AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

South Carolina’s economy has been on an upswing in recent years, thanks to increases in such areas as automotive manufacturing, electric vehicle-battery production, and much more. But challenges remain, especially as new technologies continue to emerge, and South Carolina’s workforce must keep up the pace.

Integrated Media Publishing hosted a roundtable discussion with four leaders in the workforce and education arenas on Jan. 25, 2024.

Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

The panelists were:

Galen DeHay, president of Tri-County Technical College

Colby King, associate professor of sociology at USC Upstate

Ray Lattimore, president and CEO of Marketplace Professional Staffing

Monique McDaniels, vice president of community and workforce development for Goodwill Industries of the Midlands and Upstate

Integrated Media Publishing Editor David Dykes moderated the discussion.


Q. In December, the state Department of Employment and Workforce said November was another record setting month based on gains in the labor participation rate, which at the time sat at 57 percent. Governor McMaster, in his 2021 State of the State address said the next generation's workforce must possess the education and skills necessary to compete for jobs and capital in the world's economy today. He this is the beginning of a rare opportunity for transformation. How is the state faring?


Galen DeHay: I would say that broadly, South Carolina's economy continues to grow in areas that are providing high-quality careers for individuals, particularly in advanced manufacturing, electric vehicle production, battery production, and then also in health care. Health care continues to boom, (and there is) continued growth and need in high-wage health care jobs. Nursing, of course, is an area of need in the region. I think the challenge continues to be connecting people with those opportunities, particularly our adult population. I know in our region a couple of years ago, we enumerated about 160,000 individuals above the age of 25 but below the age of 50 who are in lower-wage jobs that have an opportunity to increase that earnings potential, but they are working, and they can't quit what they're doing to get into a great career. So, I think the challenge continues to be adapting what we do in education and workforce development to make sure that it's possible for those individuals to access a great higher education.


Monique McDaniels: I would echo those same sentiments. I think one of the things we also have to keep in mind is that we're in a unique time where the state is booming in access, we are booming in availability, but we don't have the human capital, necessarily. One of the things I think that's also a growing challenge for us is that we have our baby boomer generation that is retiring … and there's not a generation behind them that has made up the gap. And so, as we're looking at all of these wonderful opportunities, all of these opportunities to get upskilled and to have access to better paying jobs, we don't have the human capital to do it.


So oftentimes we are training the young people that are still in high school and middle school as we are preparing for these new jobs. But we are also still preaching the message to them: College, do it in succession, do it in this order. And so now we have to reframe the conversation to say, we can give you a quality paying job with a quality way to live without having to go to school. And now we're competing with our educational system. So, I think we're in a catch 22. I think on the positive side, South Carolina is a great place to grow. It's a great place to establish your business, great place to grow your family. But now we have some competing priorities on how we grow the next generation of workers and how do we make up the gap for the human capital.


Ray Lattimore: I want to echo a little bit about the question regarding South Carolina and where we are today. There's no question that we made a lot of headway, but we still have a long way to go. … South Carolina has an approach that is not 100 percent cohesive. We have the best technical schools in the country. Everybody knows that. And at the federal level and the state level, we're investing in the technical schools. But is that really going to get you the high-paying job with livable wages? So, you got a portion of South Carolina that is exploding, and you have a portion of South Carolina that is lagging behind. My concern is the individuals that are lagging behind because that's where the masses are, a livable wage. Can they purchase a home? Are they renting? I see apartments going up all over the state, which is not bad because it's the fastest growing state in the nation.


But what I see is a continued divide between the haves and the have nots. So that is my biggest concern as it relates to employment in this region. I think one of the biggest issues is the soft skills. A lot of them can receive the jobs, but can they keep the jobs? And I see individuals sitting in my lobby each and every day that are not prepared for the workforce. And I believe that employers have a duty and a responsibility, and our educational system has a duty and a responsibility to educate these individuals, even if there has to be a class that is mandatory before they even get out of high school to prepare them for the workforce. So, it's going to take a team effort. I think it's segregated in a lot of ways. It's not a cohesive approach. The governor spoke a little bit about that (in the State of the State address). … He also spoke about the record number of employers that are coming to bring jobs to the state of South Carolina. But as I look at that, a lot of them are manufacturing, and these IT jobs that we're exploding with, they don't have skill sets for that, so we’ve got to prepare them for it.



Colby King: My dad worked in a steel mill in western Pennsylvania for 30 years, and I remember that many years he was taking a night class at the local technical college. … He managed the furnaces. But manufacturing industries evolve and change, right? It's not just you get one skill set, one certificate, and do that same job for 30 years. People in the workforce have to be adaptable, but our organizations, the companies, and the institutions have to be ready to prepare folks to evolve their skill set and adapt. … In Spartanburg, we've been working for more than a decade on trying to increase the percentage of folks with a four-year college degree.


Spartanburg Academic Movement just landed a huge grant from Blue Meridian. I think we're at about 28 or 29 percent with a college degree. They want to move us up to 40 in the next few years, and it's going to take a whole community to make that happen. … I think we all see that the economy is humming, right? We've got a very high labor market participation rate. ... One of the bottlenecks I think we have is childcare. The lack of access to affordable child care is really making it difficult for families, especially families with young children, to fully participate in the labor market. … I have a 6-year-old and a 2½-year-old at home. The day care that they go to … the waitlist is so long that they could triple in size without fully enrolling everyone on the waitlist. And if you don't have child care, and especially if you don't have child care that is affordable relative to what you're making at work, it's very difficult to get out to work.



Q. A couple of you have mentioned tech growth. There's a lot of excitement about the tech industries in South Carolina and everything from biosciences to it. A lot of promise and a lot of opportunity there. But then when you look at what McMaster said about the results of the South Carolina college and career ready assessments in reading and math, for the first time in recent history, at least half of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded grade level standards in reading. And if only 41 percent of students meet or exceeded grade level standards in mathematics, how do we head in a different and better direction, especially looking at IT growth in industries like biosciences, which are really gaining traction in South Carolina?


Lattimore: That’s one of the items that keeps me up at night. My background is IT. … What you see in the workforce today is a legacy of the history of South Carolina (of) minimally adequate education. Now, what we're talking about, we want to compete. And I always tell my friends and colleagues around the country that South Carolina is not a small state. I think sometimes we just think small. We got to think big. We got to educate our citizens, and we got to put them in these high-paying jobs because the economy, as it relates to housing and good-paying jobs, depends on our technical colleges and universities. We just came out with an articulation agreement where if they take transfer courses, they automatically transfer to our four-year schools.


I think that is huge. ... But you would not believe that a lot of the four-year colleges and universities fought it. And so, until we get everybody on board, we're going to struggle, especially with these high-paying jobs in bioscience and IT. We’ve really got to double down on our educational system and our workforce.


Q. Galen, how can we best adapt to the tech growth in the state?


DeHay: A number of us have spoken about the disjointed, I guess is how I would call it, structures around workforce development in the state, and our legislature and the governor's office recognized that last year and created a Coordinating Council for Workforce Development whose singular goal is to create that alignment. I happen to sit on that group, and I can tell you that they are laser-focused, the Department of Employment and Workforce heading that up. It’s got business and industry folks. It's got IT folks at manufacturing, higher education, government agencies. And the goal is to create some common solutions. And it really does start in K-12, but it continues on through higher education. And I believe some of that work has to do with creating a good bit more alignment with pathways about what's available and making that work relevant as they are, as students are in middle school or even starting in elementary school, understanding and being able to identify their potential and their talents and how that aligns with what's coming in the workforce. And then in context to that, having experiences like youth apprenticeships, which I think are a great example of some new work that's happening across the state of South Carolina. … We’ve even got insurance agencies leveraging youth apprenticeships where the youth, while they're in high school, are actually doing work. And so, they're learning what work is like while they're still in school and that's aligned with their educational path. So, making things relevant for this generation, I think, is one of those solutions.


Q. Monique, your Goodwill has been lauded for its job training programs, and you certainly see a volume of people coming through your doors that have benefited from that. What more is needed?


McDaniels: I agree with what the other panelists have discussed. There is an education and skill gap. And Goodwill tries to fill that space. In March, we're going to launch our first tech academy. It’s going to be a level one of teaching people IT fundamentals, and it has four components to it. So, by the end of that 160-hour course, they will be able to qualify for entry-level cybersecurity jobs or networking jobs. And so, we're trying to meet people where they are. Obviously, when they come into a Goodwill, we're going to provide them with the supportive services they need, because oftentimes, like everyone else has said, we're dealing with barriers to child care, housing, we're dealing with barriers to transportation, and the ability for them to be able to do this while they're still working and providing for their families. And so, the good thing about coming into the Goodwill fold is that we're going to case-manage you. We're going to provide the supportive services you need while you finish this coursework.


Most people want a quick job. These tech jobs aren't always as quick as we would like for them to be. And so, we're having to meet people where they are now and having to upskill them. We're working with employers to say … how do you upskill the current employees? You have let us help you do that. How do you bring them in and say, instead of hiring for an individual, let's now give someone a raise and now teach them a new skill? And so now you have them doing that additional work. They're earning additional wages for their family, and now they have a transferable skill where they can continue to build their career. And so, we're working with employees in a unique type of way in doing that, as well as trying to meet people where they are in designing education in a way that they can obtain it. And so, in small chunks, meeting them after hours, on weekends.  




King: One thing I see that I think we need to work on, if I have my numbers right, I think we have in public K-12 system, a little over 1,600 educator vacancies. I think we need to fill those vacancies and we need to work on turnover in K-12 education. Make those jobs ones that folks can hold for a career. I think I heard a little bit about housing there too. Our educators need to be able to afford to buy a house that'll help them stay in education and in our communities right as they're educating our students. I think filling those vacancies in K-12 sets us up to be better prepared when we get to the tech schools and to the university. … Tech is changing very quickly, and we’ve got to be adaptable, especially with AI. There's a lot going on. I've been working on this research project, interacting with folks in the film industry.


And what I'm hearing from professionals that work in that industry, from producers down to folks who work as grips on set, is that everyone on the team needs to be able to adapt and to make good use, to apply skills to make use of that technology. And it requires an openness and not just a level of education and skill, but critical thinking and teamwork and communication and an understanding of what the group project is really all about to line up together. I think this is a good place to do it. Education, whether it's a tech degree or a certificate or a four-year college degree, represents several things. You get the skills and the credentials that represent those skills, right? And that's the thing that we typically think of. Of course, when you get an education … you're also getting access to your school's alumni network and institutional resources, the career services office and all that. I think we overlook that sometimes about those resources are going to help you make use of the degree that you got. But the third thing … you get when you have a chance to pursue higher education on your way to your career is the opportunity to try things, to take risks, to make mistakes and to learn from those without imposing massive costs on your long-term career.



Lattimore: I think we need another one-cent sales tax. Governor Dick Riley first implemented the one-cent sales tax. And it's just been amazing what that has been able to accomplish. … I'm happy to hear about this Coordinating Council. … I think we've come a long way. But we got so much further to go. South Carolina is the fastest growing state in the nation. And I see apartments going up all over the place. … If you're going to recruit these jobs here, you got to train them. These guys here with the technical systems, they can't get enough butts in the seats. If you look at health care, we can't get enough butts in the seats.


They have the professors, they have the classroom, they have all the tools they need. But there's regulations where we can only certify so many CNAs, so many nurses at a time. So, these regulations are going to have to be pulled back where we can mass-produce nurses, CNAs, IT folks. To tackle this AI, there has to be an emphasis on education. If you educate the workforce, everything else is going to fall in place. … The No. 1 divide in this country is not a religious divide. It's not a racial divide. The No. 1 divide in the country is education. And if we can educate our workforce, if we can educate our citizens, we're going to be much better off in the long run.


Q. Too often I hear from C-suite level executives that there is a lack of soft-skills proficiency among younger folks, not only in South Carolina, but in much of the Southeast: good communication, interpersonal skills, leadership, problem solving, work ethic, time management, and teamwork. Those are characteristics that can be carried over to any position, Does South Carolina need more work on soft skills proficiency?


Lattimore: I've thought about that one a lot and I see it in my door every single day. It's going to take a coordinated effort of the educational system from K-1 to K-12, the technical system, the four-year colleges and universities, and the employers to educate the public on that. … It's going to take a coordinated effort for us to work together as a team to grow our tax base, citizenship, the education, and to move forward.


Q. Monique, how should we address soft skills proficiency?



McDaniels: I think soft skills is a holistic approach. I think it starts at home. Children, adults, humans are all reared by individuals that they are around. So, we are some of our experiences. And if you have not experienced individuals displaying soft skills, that's typically not something that you're probably going to have. I think schools have transitioned so much. We have gone to so much of a tech world where kids are mostly learning on a Chromebook. … Now they no longer have to interact in a way that we did when we were coming up in school, where you were required to do group interaction, where you were required to have conversations with your teachers. … I think for us, it's creating expectations. I feel like we are in a coddling society. We are also in a microwave society. We want everything very quickly. Covid probably did some very innovative and wonderful things, but it also gave us some regression. Everything is on a phone or on a computer. You can order online. So, you no longer have to have the human interaction, which weakens the soft skills. So, I do think it's a challenge. … We're educating people about how to show up on time and what they should have and what they should wear. And I do believe that we live in a society where people should be able to freely express themselves. But there is still a level of professionalism. At any job. It does not matter. … You should work in an industry where they allow you to bring your individuality to work. But when you create expectations, people typically conform to that. And so, I do think that there's a level of expectation, but we have to hold that accountable, starting at home and at school, and then that would transfer over into work.


Q. Galen, how would you address that?


DeHay: The topic of soft skills is one that's very complex. I know that there are groups that offer classes in soft skills, and if it were that simple, we would have solved this problem a very long time ago. So, I want to get down to something a little bit more practical that I've seen some great success in. … A couple of years ago, we partnered with one of our Anderson county school districts with a population of high school students who are about to graduate. … We said, let's try to educate them on what the opportunities are in a couple of sectors that are in high need that companies would work with us on to make it possible for them to get some internship experience in a customized way. It was only seven Fridays at one of our campuses … in an area where we've got one of the highest poverty rates. Those individuals that we started with a couple of years ago, all of them finished in seven weeks.


We partnered with the economic development office, and we built the experiences around six workplace skills. And every week they practiced them. We didn't talk about teamwork. We gave them an experience of teamwork, and we kind of rigged it a little bit. They’re working on a team project, and then the instructor says, ‘Hey, Monique, I want you to step outside. Don't tell them where you're going. Get outside and don't come back till I tell you to.’ They're all trying to get their work done, and they're wondering, ‘Where'd Monique go? What happened?’ And after some struggle, they stop. … They bring Monique back in, and they say, ‘So what happened when Monique left?’ ‘Well, we had to pick up her work.’ ‘How'd you distribute that?’ ‘Well, everybody had to do extra stuff. How'd that make you feel? What happened in your team workplace environment?’ So, they just weren't told, you need to be a team player. They experienced why that's important. And when they're able to produce that characteristic to that behavior, we incentivized it. … Every time they were able to demonstrate one of those workplace skills, $100.


All of those individuals decided to enroll in associate degree programs at the college or directly into one of our partner companies. And the next year we (expanded) it out to all the school districts in the county. We had a 20-person waitlist. … That's a way that you can really transform an individual's behaviors, but it's something that has to happen over time.



King: I would love for these folks who are skeptical on these qualities of our folks, our students, and future employees to come to our campus and meet our students. I'd love to be able to introduce more of our students to more employers in the state and in the region because I think so many students at Upstate demonstrate these skills every day just by getting to class. Many of our students are nontraditional. They're older, many are parents. Many are working multiple jobs … while they're taking classes. So, think about problem solving and time management. They're doing all of that. I had a student last year who was a grandmother and working night shift at BMW who completed her degree while working the night shift and taking care of her grandchild when she was off work. And she found an awesome job. … I think there's a disconnect that goes in multiple directions. I don't know that all the employers know about all the skills that our students are graduating with and that they have, and sometimes they have not had a sufficient opportunity to show them off. (At USC Upstate), our current quality enhancement plan has been to integrate more career readiness through all of our degree programs.


Q. Let me switch gears. The largest ever survey by the social institute revealed how social media and tech impact students and their experiences. The findings show that the majority of students get their first smartphone at 11 years old. Seventy-three percent of students say social media is the most popular way to get news. Eighty-seven percent of ninth- to 12th-graders say social media helps them explore hobbies and interests. And 60 percent of sixth- to eighth-graders say that social media helps them learn social skills. The landscape is changing. What's your reaction, Monique?


McDaniels: Social media has its benefits as anything else, and I think it has its drawbacks. I think social media has contributed to some of the isolation and the lack of social skills, which is some of what we've talked about here in their soft skills and how we approach and how we verify information. This generation that's growing up now, based on the data that you just gave us, they do find a lot of their interests and hobbies. … That's where they're leaning into information and that's where it's being reinforced because they get to see it. There's no other consequences for them getting information from there. There's no real accountability for research and (verification).… Our young people have been groomed to rely on tech, and there's nothing wrong with that.


But there has to be a level of respect for verifying resources and information. … I think we just have to be mindful that just because it's on social media doesn't mean it's true. Just because you can find it on the internet doesn't mean that it's been validated. And so, like anything, we just need to take it in doses and have parameters and guardrails.


Q. Galen, what does that show you?

DeHay: I'd add to that the importance and education of educating our students in the realm of digital literacy. We really focus on that at our institution. We've got a Learning Commons that partners with all of the programs at the college, both workforce and transfer programs, that help students really understand how to consume that information. We consumed information … through journals or books or magazines, but the generation that is entering our higher education institutions are consuming information differently. But the problem is still the same. It's being able to evaluate that information, determine the truthfulness of that information, where the sources come from, and it's just a new challenge.

Q. Ray, you deal with a lot of young people. How do you assess this?

Lattimore: There’s good and bad with social media. I think it's a great tool, like anything else. But how do you train them to filter, if you will? I mean, when we take applications, we advertise a job, and most of them have already applied for the job, right? On an iPhone or Android, bam, it's applied for. Or they have a tablet, or they have a computer at home, or if they come in, they get directly onto an application within our office. … So, it's a lot more efficient. … But I do think that there's some limitations. And also, if it's not used in the right way, it can be detrimental.


Q. Colby, let me get to you. Forty-nine percent of seventh-graders say they feel the need to respond to a text within 10 minutes of receiving it, or even sooner. And if I'm in a classroom or trying to teach a classroom, and I know that that's going on, that's going to be wild.


King: Distraction is a real problem. … We thought that with tech advancement, we would be more productive and maybe wouldn't need to work as much because we're being more productive. But it turns out we're also consumers of the output of that tech innovation, and we're all distracted. I have to say, I don't believe it's only young people that are sometimes fooled and misled by what they see on the internet.

And if you've ever had to help an older person try to connect to the Wi-Fi at your house, you may have this awareness as well that everyone in our community needs media literacy and information literacy, digital literacy. … Our institution's library gives a faculty award and a student award for projects related to information literacy. And it's, I think, an effective way to encourage folks to think critically about the reliability and credibility of sources and what makes a source reliable and credible.


Q. Let's wrap up by asking each one of you, if we were to reconvene this conversation in five years, what's the one thing you hope would be different?


Lattimore: That there is a coordinated approach through public policy where all segments of our community are valued and given an opportunity to succeed.


McDaniels: I would piggyback off of the coordinated structuring. I think it starts with policy. I would love to see us be intentional with our educational system and providing young people and access to working individuals with the education training that they need. But we're doing that in a coordinated effort. So, through this coordinated council, I have great hope and optimism for the work that will come out of that. That the actual folks that need to be in a room talking when it comes to setting educational standards, to meeting with heads of commerce departments about what type of jobs that are coming into our state and what we're projecting so that we are giving people the right skills they need and providing the access to those opportunities. So, I have great hope that in five years this coordinated council would have solved all of South Carolina's workforce development problems and we'll be talking about something quite different in five years.


Q. Galen, do you accept that challenge?


DeHay: I'm sure that that group will be taking on many of those challenges, but this is something that would certainly be a multiyear, probably well beyond five years venture. But what I hope that we would see in five years from now something a little bit more practical, which would be that education has adapted itself to not be a single instance of we want you to invest two or four years of your life after you've gone through 12 or 13 years of primary education and secondary education before you go to work.


Because I believe that with workforce needs as they are today and how people consume education, we have a great opportunity to adapt education with a whole lot more on and off ramp so that the individuals who are working are truly seeing themselves as lifelong learners, that they are going to come in and out of education really through their careers, because that's the only way that you're going to adapt to how quickly areas like it are changing. … You're going to have to be a lifelong learner. Those might be micro credentials, shorter certifications or certificates. … Individuals are making choices to come back to school and learn additive skills that are helping them to be more marketable. And I think we have a great opportunity to adapt ourselves to leverage those abilities.


King: So again, I come from the Rust Belt. My dad was a steel mill worker. I would really hope that over the next five years, we see a diversification of growth in a variety of industry sectors, not just manufacturing, not just EV or AI. I know that there's a lot of growth around auto manufacturing and EVs, but the broader growth that we're able to build, the better buffered we are against economic downturns in any one particular sector. I think that's really important for everyone across the state. Seeing what can happen when the mill that runs a town closes down gives you some real sense of the importance of making sure you've got several dynamic employers in your community. And interrelated, I think, is quality of life.


 I hope that we, through working on child care, housing, affordable housing, and the diversification of industries and activity that a lot of it's going to be around. You have manufacturers, but you also need arts and entertainment, education, medicine. And all of that growth goes to improve the quality of life for everyone.