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Workforce challenge already here for S.C. companies

Human Resources
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Students in a lab at Midlands Technical College work to acquire skills needed to compete for future jobs in the workplace. (Photo/Midlands Technical College)

By Mike Fitts

Finding and retaining a skilled workforce in South Carolina isn’t just a looming future challenge for employers — the challenge is here today, according to a panel of S.C. business leaders.

The executives gathered at a recent workforce development symposium hosted by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the state Department of Employment and Workforce and the S.C. Workforce Development Board. Although the industries that were represented varied, the conclusion was the same: The hiring of trained and ready employees is challenging companies across the state.

Executives from the medical field, manufacturing and other industries said they need better preparation and coordination from the education system in order to keep their businesses growing and thriving — especially as baby boomers move toward retirement.

“Workforce development is going to be the critical challenge for us for the next 20 years,” said Ben Green, COO of DP Professionals, a recruiting firm for the high-technology sector.

Tim Hayden, president of Sargent Metal in Anderson, said hiring has been a particular challenge for small to midsize companies that don’t have major human resources assets for recruiting. He praised the S.C. Technical College System for the training it offers and the grants and scholarships available. He warned, however, that there is “a false picture” being painted for new employees moving into manufacturing. Salaries in the field can be substantial, but those come after a few years in the field, not right away, he said.

Bill Caldwell, president of Waldrop Mechanical Services in Spartanburg, said of getting young people to consider the HVAC field, “It’s been very difficult for us to inspire the youth of today to enter the construction industry. Our problem is just getting them to the door.”

Caldwell said he is looking a few years down the road toward passing the business on to a successor, but he said that is contingent on keeping a skilled and satisfied workforce in place. “I have nothing to sell if I don’t have the people,” he said.

Green warned that college students need to keep their career prospects in mind: Will that degree, he asked, really repay that $200,000 in college debt? “It’s time for folks to have some frank conversations with their kids,” he said.

Jimmy Walker, senior vice president of the S.C. Hospital Association, noted that the state will fill key jobs in the workforce, but perhaps not with native South Carolinians. His example: About half of the newly licensed nurses hired here each year come from outside the state, he said.

Public-private partnerships can improve the prospects in a particular field, according to Lonnie Emard, president of IT-oLogy, an organization that focuses on attracting the next generation of information technology experts. Back in 2009, people thought IT was a career for the computing industry only; IT-oLogy works to change that perception, Emard said.

The organization has reached out to schools to create a computer science curriculum for high schools and has seen enrollments in IT-related majors increase, after nine years of decline. That’s something no one company or college could turn around but a team effort such as IT-oLogy can make progress on, Emard said. “Collectively, great things can happen.”

Employees need not only technical training but also soft skills to succeed in work, panelists said. Those skills can be as basic as showing up, staying focused and being engaged with people. People skills are particularly key in health care, Walker said, adding that good educational programs include improving those skills.

Caldwell wondered aloud whether  communication and teamwork have been impaired by the advent of technology, particularly the cellphone. Too often, he said, young people aren’t ready for face-to-face communication. “Technology is an addiction that is getting in the way of what people need to do,” he said.

A separate panel highlighted the dramatic changes going on at the other end of the workforce. More would-be retirees are launching second careers or taking part-time work instead of transitioning into full retirement, according to Cynthia Hutchins, director of financial gerontology for Bank of America.

Baby boomers who are looking ahead to retirement expect to miss the regular income and the mental stimulation of work, according to surveys. But actual retirees, she said, most often say they miss the social engagement of the workplace.

The workplace now comprises a wider spread of age groups than ever before, and that can mean different methods of communication, Hutchins said. Older workers might want company news from meetings or email, whereas younger workers are comfortable getting a text message, she said.

Two-thirds of the workforce is either from Generation X or the millennial generation, Hutchins said. The remaining third is the baby boomers, who are crafting longer careers than anyone before them. Those boomers represent a talent pool that she said smart companies will want to harness.

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