Aiken County’s manufacturing age began in the 1840s with the efforts of William Gregg in establishing the Graniteville Company and the mills that followed, remaining in operation for about 160 years.

The county still has a strong manufacturing base, Will Williams said at an Aiken Rotary Club meeting on Monday.

Williams is the executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership. Saluda County was added to the partnership earlier this month.

While manufacturing remains strong in the county, it hasn’t returned to its high-water mark reached in 2002, Williams said. Still, Aiken County has long-established companies such as Kimberly-Clark and Owens-Corning, Williams said. With about 1,300 employees, Kimberly-Clark had the largest private-sector firm in the county for many years. Bridgestone has since passed that number and will continue to grow with its ongoing expansion efforts.

Overall, the percentage of Aiken County’s workforce in the manufacturing sector is higher than the state’s percentage and those of many other counties, Williams said.

“For every manufacturing job created, four others are created through the service industry,” he said. “It sounds like it’s all sunshine, but not completely.”

Even as the employees at Bridgestone grow in numbers, 30 percent live outside of Aiken County – contributing to those communities instead. The public school system can “stand toe to toe” academically with others in the state, but it doesn’t have a strong track record on new construction, he said.

“Companies want to see a community investing in itself,” Williams said. “The County is not as committed as it needs to be with education and the workforce.”

He reiterated that Aiken County must invest more in the School District and USC Aiken and Aiken Technical College, as well. More and more workers are reaching retirement age.

“We need families with young children, or our talent pool will dry up,” said Williams. “Manufacturing is important to our community’s vitality, but without the tools in our box, we will not be able to join the success.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.