Chamber study outlines possible solutions to talent issues in region

By Liz Segrist
Published June 25, 2014

Companies looking to hire general assemblers, computer programmers and cybersecurity professionals will have unfilled positions or will look outside of the Charleston region to find qualified workers, according to an analysis of the Lowcountry’s workforce.

Almost 200 annual shortages are expected for general assemblers, and 162 annual shortages are anticipated for computer programmers in the region.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce commissioned the Talent Demand Analysis study to find the disparities between the region’s available jobs and the workers being produced from local educational institutions to see where the gaps are and recommend ways to fill them.

Mary Graham, the chamber's senior vice president, said that the region's economy has evolved and that workforce development needs to catch up. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
“The economy has changed so fundamentally over the past five to six years. It is much more technically based. We are not aligned in terms of producing folks. ... People don’t know what the jobs are or where to go to get training for them.”
— Mary Graham, senior vice president of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce
“The economy has changed so fundamentally over the past five to six years. It is much more technically based. We are not aligned in terms of producing folks. ... People don’t know what the jobs are or where to go to get training for them,” said Mary Graham, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president, who spoke at the Competitiveness Summit today at Trident Tech.

National consultants from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and Avalanche Consultants worked with the chamber, local industry and schools during the study to identify the talent gaps, which produced a three-phase analysis of the region.

The overall finding: The region is growing and job growth is strong, but the graduates being produced are not meeting employers’ needs, causing them to rely on recruiting out-of-state.

This is especially true in the manufacturing, technology and aerospace sectors, said Sarah Miller, associate director of public sector services for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Bob Williams, the chief technology officer at Sparc, said the world of software development is a “game of never-ending catch-up” with constantly evolving technologies.

The local tech scene struggles to find enough computer programmers and mobile developers, as well as those employees who can adapt to an environment that changes every few months.

“Locally, the market is tapped to a degree,” Williams said. “We are reaching outside of the state to find talent.”

Roughly 25,000 new jobs are projected for the Charleston region in the next five years, and business leaders are looking to increase their home-grown workforce.

“Workforce shortages are happening across the country. You’re growing faster as a region so you’ve felt that pain more, but people are finally realizing that workforce and economic development have to work together,” Avalanche Consulting Vice President Chris Engle said.

Students also need to expand their focus beyond what they want to do for a career and look to see what jobs are actually available and pursue training for those, Engle said. If students do not consider what jobs are open in a region, they will be unemployed, underemployed, or forced to move to another market, Engle said.

Potential solutions

Increasing the number of apprenticeships, launching a comprehensive research university and creating a regional funding pool for workforce development initiatives are among the ideas to deal with talent shortages presented in the Talent Demand Analysis study.

The study made recommendations on improving content, collaboration and communication.

For content, the study found that educational institutions need to offer more science, technology, engineering and math-related subjects and industry certificates, while industry needs to offer more entrepreneurial opportunities for students, like apprenticeships or internships.

In that vein, Trident Tech President Mary Thornley announced today that 11 high school juniors and seniors will partake in two-year apprenticeships with Bosch, Detyens Shipyards, Hubner Manufacturing, IFA Rotorion and VTL Group.

“That is what I call a seamless transition to the workforce,” Thornley said.

The study also suggests creating more career academies, which are career-themed schools within high schools. The chamber launched five pilot programs focused on STEM at Berkeley County School District and Dorchester District 2 last year and plans to launch an IT-focused pilot program at Dorchester 2 in the fall.

The chamber needs 115 industry partners to sign on for the career academies. It has 21 companies so far.

“You are one of the few regions in the country trying to solve this problem in a comprehensive way,” Miller said.

Business leaders and educators need to collaborate and communicate to leverage assets and programs, like what’s being done with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, the Lowcountry Graduate Center and the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, Miller said.

Part of the issue stems from lack of awareness and communication of what jobs are available in the region and what career path is needed to attain them, Graham said. An online jobs portal for the region is one option to communicate opportunities to students and job seekers, Miller said.

Technical degrees need to be promoted as a path to a successful career in manufacturing or IT sectors as well.

“You have everything you need to do this,” Engle said. “The fact that you’re a mid-sized city gives you a better chance to execute.”

Read the in-depth story in the July 14 issue of the Charleston Regional Business Journal. Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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