Current statistics show South Carolina’s job market at an interesting crossroads, with more jobs available than ever before but a consistent problem in getting people to apply for them.
Addressing that situation will be a central focus this month and beyond, officials said Wednesday during a special ceremony to officially declare September Workforce Development Month statewide.
Officials from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce as well as numerous other state agencies, nonprofits and companies attended the event at the Michelin plant in Lexington, as well as S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and Alexis Garcin, president and CEO of Michelin North America.
The state is currently seeing one of its strongest job markets ever, said Dan Ellzey, executive director of DEW. He said the agency’s statistics show 74,000 more people are working right now statewide than were on the payroll in the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
However, Ellzey said, the catch is that there are currently 113,000 jobs that need filling in the state, a problem made worse by the fact that South Carolina has one of the nation’s lowest labor force participation rates at around 57%.
Federal data backs up DEW numbers, showing the state’s labor force participation at 57.3% as of Aug. 19 — down from 57.5% in July. Since last year, South Carolina’s labor force participation rate has dropped by 0.2 percentage point, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Our challenge is to figure out how to get people to these jobs,” he said. “We need to figure out why people who lose their jobs aren’t returning to work, and why they don’t enter the workforce in the first place. We’ve had a task force studying this, and we expect to have some answers later this year.”
In hopes of finding a solution, DEW is kicking off a new program on Thursday. Direct Connect aims to get people back into the workforce on a county-by-county basis, starting in Laurens County in the Upstate. Ellzey said the program will work to reconnect people who were employed before the pandemic but not currently working.
Staff members will identify unemployment insurance claimants from the pandemic and work with regional partners in Laurens County, such as religious organizations and nonprofits, to try to find out why the residents have not returned to work. The program will offer hands-on, personalized services to help guide people back to employment and connect them with local businesses that are hiring, Ellzey said. Once the program is launched in Laurens, the agency will take Direct Connect to other counties.
“We know that about 1,200 people in Laurens County fall into this category, and even if we could get 200 of them back into the workforce, that would have a big impact on payroll,” Ellzey said. “We think this is a possible solution to the problem we’ve got.”
Speakers at the ceremony talked about the need not only to boost the workforce but to make sure that people of all ages have access to needed training.
The state’s business-friendly attitude draws companies both large and small, but they face a double-edged sword when trying to attract workers, said Bob Morgan, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“The No. 1 challenge our companies have is not being able to find enough workers, and often when they do get enough applicants, they discover they don’t have the skills for the job,” Morgan said. “We also have companies that are hiring workers who never show up or who only end up staying for a week or so. The biggest challenge this state has every day is workforce development, and we applaud all the efforts to put a spotlight on this challenge.”
The schedule of events for Workforce Development Month is jam-packed, including more than 200 job fairs and workshops statewide; dozens of visits by the Be Pro Be Proud and Career Coach mobile workshops; discussion forums and roundtables; four labor market webinars and other events, both in-person and online.