Manufacturing is strong in the United States, and stronger still in South Carolina. In Greenville County, manufacturing drives the economy, ranking first in Gross Regional Product and first in total earnings for all industries.
Yet as the economy began to show signs of improvement in 2010, employers in upstate South Carolina’s advanced manufacturing sector quickly found that they weren’t equipped to take advantage of the improving conditions; they couldn’t find enough people with the right skills to help their companies grow. An aging workforce at one end of the spectrum, and young people who often dismiss the field as a career choice at the other, exacerbated an already severe problem.
At Greenville Technical College, we set out to bridge that skills gap. We began talking with leaders in the advanced manufacturing community about their needs and how a new approach could help. After discussing and planning over several years, we developed a plan to create a supply of highly skilled new employees and to increase the skills of current employees so that upstate South Carolina and its manufacturing companies could compete globally.
The result is the Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), which is expected to open in 2016. It will help support the workforce needs of our area’s most vital sector and promote career pathways for students. It couldn’t have happened without a deep partnership between industry and education and an approach to education that brings all levels together — from K–12 schools to two-year colleges to four-year universities.
This is not just a new building to house existing programs and services. This is a unique and innovative approach to education, along with what we believe will be the nation’s only manufacturing honors college, with a modularized curriculum, contextualized learning, certificates of proficiency and clear career pathways.
The CMI will showcase manufacturing for young people, their parents and the community to break some longstanding stereotypes from the days when textiles were the dominant — and dirty — industry in our area. The entryway will provide observation points, where a visitor can view simulated advanced manufacturing environments and interactive displays will educate and entertain. Through our partnership with Clemson University, we will create opportunities for tomorrow’s engineers and technicians to come together to solve real-life problems in a simulated manufacturing environment.
There is no simple solution to the challenges of the skills gap. But when industry and education join forces, and every level of education partners in the effort, we can — and will — see a difference. Our students will become prepared for careers that pay higher salaries than the county average. Our employers will be able to find qualified new hires and provide skills to the current workforce, so they can prosper and grow.
Our goal is for upstate South Carolina to gain a global reputation as a location that supports the needs of companies, making it an even greater magnet for advanced manufacturing. With such a strong commitment from the entire community, I know that we can narrow the skills gap and widen the way for more “made in the USA.”