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Job seekers and businesses recruiting prospective trainees in Union County are finding personal attention available every weekday, up from two days a week, at the Workforce and Economic Development Center on Main Street in Union. County Supervisor Frank Hart said the change this month involves adding a full-time “point person” as a center manager to help link job seekers to employer training opportunities. Hart said relying on programs that provided staff just a few days a week, in some cases due to spending cutbacks, was not adequately answering to community needs.
He said the center manager is intended to better coordinate state and federal efforts that have involved the Employment Security Commission, S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce “and now we have the (Upstate) Workforce Investment Board and part of that is contracted out through Rescare,” a contractor.
“There are a lot of different institutions that aren’t necessarily coordinated by one entity or one body,” Hart said. “There are some turf issues there. From a Union County perspective, we don’t care who is providing the service. We want the service provided in such a way that it prepares our folks to get gainful employment.” The center manager is “an advocate for making sure that happens.”
Hart said there are “folks who are willing and able and trained and capable to take the jobs. What we are starting to focus on here now is making sure we are doing that in the most efficient way possible and that we are achieving the desired result, which is making sure that — for our existing employers, as well as anybody new that comes in — that there is a ready, trained pool of people to serve them in their business.”
Hart said technical training, continuing education, vocational rehabilitation and veterans programs are among a “lot of different entities that are reaching out touching our local businesses who would come in and say ‘What can I do to help you? What service can I provide?’ We really believe that needs to be done in more of a targeted, strategic coordinated way … They are not dealing with eight or 10 different folks who come in and say, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ There ought to be a coordinated way to do that.”
Center Manager Katherine Pendergrass said “trying to match the employer and employee together has been difficult.” She said there are people commuting to work outside the county who could get better paying jobs in Union. “One of the things I hope to do is I want to have a town hall meeting on workforce development and get input. Let job managers hear what is going on and help some of the people who are going out of town find a way to bring them back. There are jobs here.”
Hart said there have been discussions about “maybe looking at the possibility of some type of a work training center in Union County which would take some of those transitional workers that have had some difficulties maintaining employment and put them through a process where they would be more suitable for our mainstream employers,” he said. “It’s really my mission for the coming year. It’s all about workforce, workforce development and what do we need to be doing to get our folks ready.” He said the county needs to be helping students and others who are looking for work opportunities locally, including mechatronics, robotics and other advanced manufacturing skill areas.
“We are actively working with Spartanburg Community College to expand their footprint and their programming in Union County,” Hart said. “Our goal is to have a mechatronics program in Union” in the fall.
“There is a pretty nice pool of high school students ready to go into that,” said Union County’s top business recruiter, Economic Development Board Director Andrena Powell-Baker. She said the new center manager and better coordinated services are also focused on matching people with the best paying job opportunities. The strategy is about “more than just economic development and industrial recruitment and retention. There is some quality of life that goes along with that in terms of median income. We believe it is a bigger social issue above and beyond economic development.” She said having a point person is key, “especially one who knows the employers, what their rate of pay is, who is hiring direct.”
The University of South Carolina’s Union campus provides associate degree opportunities.
Powell-Baker’s economic development team has recorded about $300 million in investment and added about 800 jobs over the last five years. A 60,000-square-foot county-owned spec building with an adjacent 60,000-square-foot building pad that is expandable to 165,000 square feet is available.
“We’ve got good infrastructure, water and gas and all that kind of stuff,” Hart said.
Business prospects also have some bargaining power with electrical service in the county.
“As small as we are, we are served by five electric power companies,” Powell-Baker said. “That is a unique differentiator.” She said in some cases it gives a prospect a “competitive advantage when you have more than one provider.”
Hart said the county’s location in the Upstate and easy access to interstates and more populous areas is an asset.
“We are rural, but we’re not that rural,” he said. “We have a lot of large counties that are adjacent to us.”
Powell-Baker said the Upstate location is an advantage, with access to Charleston, Atlanta, and Charlotte via the four-lane U.S. 176 and S.C. 49 to interstates 26 and 85. The county has a labor pool of 500,000 within a 45-minute drive.
Rural communities can offer the benefit of a stable, loyal workforce. She said that loyalty is a remnant of the textile industry culture.
“We have some companies who are left over from the textile industry, and most of those employees have been at their companies, 25, 30, 35 years. Some of them 40 years,” Powell-Baker said.
In October, a $20 million Haemonetics expansion of its operations in Union County included 40 new jobs. Early last year, Charleston-based Vapor Apparel announced an expansion to a 30,000-square-foot-manufacturing facility in Union County and has added about 40 jobs. Christopher Bernat, the company’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, said state officials helped the company find a community with a textile history. He said Union is “an old mill town. We wanted to be somewhere where there was a history of textile manufacturing. We knew there would be some sewing resources in the region.”
“We are up and running,” Bernat said of the specialty garment maker. ”Our customers are thousands of small printers across the country.”
Retailer Belk Inc. in 2015 completed an expansion of its e-commerce distribution and fulfillment center, the second since the retailer opened in mid-June 2012. The $47 million investment added 345,000 square feet to the 515,000-square-foot facility and boosted employment to 314. Dollar General has a 1 million-square-foot distribution center with about 650 employees in Union County.
Gestamp South Carolina LLC is also among the county’s major industries and Powell-Baker said the BMW supplier that opened in 2008 is among companies that were looking for a rural community. Union County does not have interstate frontage, and Powell-Baker said some companies, like Gestamp, “want to be a big fish in a small pond.”
Looking ahead, Hart said he and Powell-Baker are leading an effort this year to develop a strategic plan for the county. He said that process will bring together “all the different stakeholders with input so we develop first … a somewhat short-term five-year plan and then with the hopes of a 10-year plan after that.”
“That is something that has not been done to date,” Hart said. “I think we are doing a lot of good stuff, but it is all part of the pieces. We need to pull it together with a script and a road map.”