Editor's note: This is the first in a series of periodic articles related to efforts to produce new skilled workers to manufacturing jobs.
Manufacturing employees throughout Aiken County are getting older, and hundreds are expected to retire in the next five years and beyond.
Yet the workforce that would take their place is nowhere close in numbers to do so – an issue that continues to alarm economic development personnel, industry leaders, Aiken County officials and educators at a time when manufacturing is experiencing a resurgence.
“Nothing could be more important than the next generation of the workforce,” said Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership.
But young people and their parents, as well, don't tend to hear positive messages toward manufacturing jobs, because their perception is based on the kind of jobs that have all but vanished.
The seriousness of the situation led representatives of the groups to attend a manufacturing summit meeting on Friday – the culmination of a 10-month study commissioned by Williams' office and his education partners.
Consulting firm owner Tom Miller, based in Indianapolis, conducted interviews and surveys and met with focus groups.
“There is a growing skills gap, and you have it here,” he said. “You do a lot of things well in Aiken County, but don't get complacent. We want to leave you with a sense of urgency.”
The participants included Aiken County legislators, County officials, business representatives and educators Aiken Technical College President Dr. Susan Winsor, Aiken School District Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt and USC Aiken Chancellor Dr. Sandra Jordan.
Miller's study is titled: “Manu-facturing Works: Build a Career on It.” The key findings, listed in the executive summary, include that manufacturing is alive and well in the county. Yet the county is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers that is getting worse.
The lack of such labor is occurring throughout the world – compounded by job creation and retirements coming at the same time.
It's essential, Miller said, for Aiken County leaders to fully address these issues for the future.
Aiken County has welcomed companies like the German diesel engine-builder Tognum, the upcoming new recycling plant, Recleim, and the Bridgestone expansion.
“What's unique about Aiken County, is that we take care of our current employers in a way that becomes attractive to new employers,” Winsor said.
ATC offers a popular initiative called “Technical Scholars.” Manufacturers and other industrial firms can offer promising students part-time positions – paying their tuition and a salary.
That kind of strategy makes sense for companies, said Bridgestone executive Fran Jones. ATC and USCA have been helpful about helping the firm find the right people.
“From our perspective, it is important that people show up for work everyday on time,” she said. “They work while they're there, and they get along well with others.”
The school district included principals, teachers and counselors in the consulting firm's survey sessions last spring, Everitt said.
“We wanted them to hear about the value of manufacturing and what we as educators can do to increase the workforce,” she said. “Counselors have to become more aware of that during IGPs (Individual Graduation Plans), so that parents do not automatically take manufacturing off the table.”