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A tight labor market puts Upstate manufacturers in a bit of a bind.
A surging economy, along with expanding firms and manufacturing operations means employees who are unhappy or unfulfilled in their work can easily apply for new jobs elsewhere, said Jay Cofer, chairman of Spartanburg Community College’s advanced manufacturing program.
“It’s a good thing for workers, because it means they can get jobs,” Cofer said. “But it’s problematic for firms, because it’s harder to keep people when they realize they can go right down (Highway 290) and get another job making $1.25 more per hour. So it’s tough for manufacturers in this environment.”
The other side of the equation? Plenty of workers who would apply for jobs in the manufacturing sector don’t have the necessary experience or qualification to land the job, Cofer said.
The National Skills Coalition in 2017 estimated that “middle skill jobs” — those that require more than a high school education but less than a college degree — make up 57 percent of South Carolina’s labor market, while just 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained to that level.
Companies like Michelin and BMW have long partnered with area schools, including SCC and Greenville Technical College, for their technical scholars programs, which combine rigorous manufacturing-related coursework with part-time work at hiring firms.
Last year, BMW said the program produced graduates with the combination of knowledge and practical hands-on skills the company needs, but the program requires a serious multi-year commitment by students and employers.
That model can be adapted
Cofer said the scholars’ model can be tweaked to accommodate other talent shortages within a company, holding Michelin out as an example.
He said Michelin, the world’s second-largest tire manufacturer, approached the college in 2017 and asked it to design a scholar-style program for positions like tire builders.
“So, in conjunction with them, we’ve developed three courses, Manufacturing 101, 103 and 104,” Cofer said. “And we’re really talking about basic knowledge of how manufacturing facilities operate, and what they’re going to expect day-to-day. In this case, it’s geared toward Michelin’s vocabulary.”
It’s called Michelin Scholars, which is different from the company’s two-year Technical Scholars program.
Program acceptance requires screening by both SCC and Michelin, Cofer said, and accepted students will find themselves immersed in a 10-week classroom and manufacturing floor experience.
Students are paid $12 per hour during the 10-week schedule, rising to just more than $16 per hour upon graduation. In six months, SCC said graduates could expect $18 per hour.
“This is a program that was designed to take somebody who has been working for $7.50 per hour at (a shoe store), who doesn’t have any manufacturing experience and get them in and up to speed,” Cofer said. “On the other side of this, they’re making double what they were before.”
Growing your own workforce
So far, across two groups in 2018, the program has graduated just eight employees — but all eight have found full-time employment. At least another four will start the program in February.
“The same factors that govern manufacturers’ hiring impacts programs like this,” Cofer said. “But we’re also building a framework here. Yes, this is adapted to Michelin, but the larger point is that you can make some changes to this and there are many other places who could make use of a similar program and grow their own workforce.”
Economic Futures Group Executive Vice President Carter Smith said programs like those employed by Michelin are powerful for individual employers, but equally as powerful for prospective companies looking to move to the Upstate.
“There’s a lot of different ways these things have been tried,” Smith said. “But it becomes a major selling point when we’re trying to bring another company here.”
Smith said prospective employers look at both education outcomes and an ability to adapt training programs to meet new challenges.
“We really look at this as a differentiator,” Smith said. “If we can show them success stories at places like SCC, that boosts that comfort level and makes our job easier.”