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Report: Columbia faces challenges retaining talent

Business Services
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By Christina Lee Knauss

The Columbia area is a good place to be an entrepreneur but presents some challenges for employers trying to find and keep talent, according to the most recent 2021-22 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report.

The report, a collaboration between EngenuitySC and the Midlands Business Leadership Group, measures the Columbia metropolitan area against similar communities in the Southeast to determine how competitive it is in terms of business and economic growth. It was released March 11 during a panel discussion at the Pastides Alumni Center.

This is the seventh competitiveness report the groups have compiled and the first to reflect initial data from the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Columbia area continued a trend of being a favorable place for entrepreneurship and new business startups, the report showed some concerning trends for the region’s ability to attract and retain employees with the skills to grow the area’s workforce. That included low overall gains in income, especially in Richland County.

“Columbia has seen sluggish growth overall relative to its peers,” said Joey Von Nessen, an economist in the Division of Research at the University of South Carolina School of Business. “We’ve got a strong talent base here but we’re not retaining that talent like we should be, partly because we’re not producing enough good employment opportunities to retain that talent.”

The report compiles data about the Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes six counties: Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Fairfield, Saluda and Calhoun. As of the 2020 census, this was the state’s second largest MSA, with a population of 838,433.

Columbia’s peer MSAs were chosen because they share at least one comparable economic asset, including: a major university in the region; similar geographic location and landscape; comparable population size; and/or a state capital. The peer MSAs include the Greenville/Anderson/Mauldin and Charleston/North Charleston areas in South Carolina as well as Raleigh, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro/Highpoint, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Augusta-Richmond County, Ga., Lexington-Fayette, Ky. and Tallahassee, Fla.

The Midlands ranked high in entrepreneurial and business development, third of 10, and stayed the same as previous years in capacity for innovation at seventh.

However, the region came in last when it comes to talent, which tracks a region’s ability to attract, develop and maintain a vibrant and skilled workforce. In that category, the Columbia area got low marks, especially in the percentage of degrees awarded in high-demand STEM fields and the average salaries for those in STEM occupations.

Another concerning result is Columbia’s ranking of ninth in livability, a measure of a region’s ability to offer an inclusive and dynamic area for residents to “live, learn, work and play,” according to the report.

Among the lowest ratings in that category were Columbia’s employment in arts, entertainment and recreation (eighth) and the cost-of-living index (seventh), with the area coming in last when it comes to the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents.

The Midlands also ranks ninth in industry clusters, which is a region’s ability to sustain and grow industries that can compete on a global market.

Von Nessen noted that Columbia is still working to rebound from the economic effects of COVID-19, called “The Great Reset” by economists because it drove many jobs to go remote and prompted many workers to change careers.

He said the Midlands can improve its appeal to prospective new residents by encouraging industries that allow remote work.

Community and business leaders from around the Midlands discussed the report’s findings on March 11. Among their suggestions on how to improve Columbia’s competitiveness were the need to grow the community’s brand not only in South Carolina but around the country and to develop new opportunities for workforce development while building on the area’s already strong reputation for innovation and startups.

Lou Kennedy, president and CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals, said the Midlands also needs to build up and promote natural assets such as the riverfront areas in Richland and Lexington counties, which could present a natural attraction to younger people considering a move to the area.

Kennedy also said the region in general needs to do more to promote its growing number of companies in the health and science sectors.

“Recently, the South Carolina bio and life science market has been on fire,” Kennedy said. “Those are good-paying jobs, and we need to come out of our shell, band together and let people know what we have here.”

A new group formed by the MBLG, the Regional Competitiveness Council, will bring Midlands leaders together to work on initiatives to improve the area’s competitiveness. The council will include members from businesses, government and educational institutions around the area and be led by Scott Graves of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and Ron Rhames, president of Midlands Technical College.

The MBLG took over compiling the annual competitiveness report when EngenuitySC, a project management nonprofit, dissolved this past December.

“There is a lot of passion and positive momentum here in the Midlands, and we want to use this report to identify ways we can develop initiatives to move the Midlands forward,” Graves said. “We want to work with both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to get this done.”  

This article first appeared in the March 28 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report. 

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