Aerospace Industry Looks at Future of Workforce Development in South Carolina

Richard Breen

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

As South Carolina’s aerospace industry continues to grow, the state’s workforce will need to keep pace, said speakers and attendees at an industry gathering this week in Columbia.

Workforce development was among the main topics at the South Carolina Aerospace Conference & Expo. The industry now accounts for 55,000 workers in the Palmetto State, with 5,400 new jobs announced since 2011.

“So how do we build on this momentum?” asked S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt. “It is our workforce that we need to pay the most attention to in the future.”

Lockheed Martin Corp. has had a presence in South Carolina for 33 years, with current operations in Greenville and Beaufort. Don Erickson, Lockheed’s site director in Greenville, said he’s not having to go as far away to recruit aerospace workers and he’s finding that the skill level of South Carolina applicants is increasing.

“There’s been a willingness to embrace the aerospace cluster,” Erickson said – a willingness he said is informed by knowledge of the automotive cluster’s economic impact in the state.

Michael Muser, director of composites with Ingersoll Machine Tools Inc., said he finds prospective workers from among the master’s degree candidates at the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing. Ingersoll leases equipment to the college’s McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.

“Their students are exposed to a lot beyond the typical university experience,” Muser said. “We get a lot out of our cooperation with the McNair Center.”

The S.C. Department of Commerce estimates there are currently 400 private-sector firms in the state’s aerospace cluster.

Economic growth across many industries has led to a thinning of South Carolina’s labor pool. The state’s July unemployment rate of 3.9 percent was the lowest since November 2000.

Erickson said technical colleges are supporting aerospace activities with training programs. But while Lockheed Martin may be an employer of choice for aerospace workers, he understands “with some of the smaller operations that are just starting up,” it may be harder to recruit.

Educators, the business community and government say they are better at coordinating workforce development. An aerospace engineering major is taking shape at USC and the effort has begun to work its way down to younger students.

“We want to be as nimble in K-12 as our technical college system has been,” said S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman.

Gov. Henry McMaster said resources are in place to train the aerospace workforce, “but so far, we have not had enough response.”

“For perhaps the first time in our history,” he said, “we have jobs chasing people instead of people chasing jobs.”

One hurdle is a lingering perception that a four-year degree is the only route to success.

“You can get into these jobs with two years in a technical college,” McMaster said.

Another perception, held over from the state’s textile past, is that manufacturing is dirty work.

“Now you’re working with robots and computers,” said Darrell Johnson, superintendent of Greenwood School District 50. “We’re showing parents that manufacturing in 2017 is different from manufacturing in 1977.”

Spearman admits that she was once among those who felt a four-year degree was a must-have. Nowadays, she said, positions in advanced manufacturing “are careers, they’re not just jobs.”

“We need to have people that are happy and enjoy their work,” she said. “Success means finding what you like to do and being prepared for it.”

McMaster said South Carolina’s aerospace boom represents an opportunity “to take a giant step forward in economic prosperity.”

“If we don’t mess it up,” he said, “the future is ours.”

The three-day conference and expo was held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and USC Alumni Center. The first two days drew 480 attendees and 54 exhibitors, according to organizers.

Organizers of the fourth annual event included the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, SC Aerospace, S.C. Aviation Association, S.C. Council on Competitiveness, state Department of Commerce and USC. The Boeing Co., Ingersoll Machine Tools and Lockheed Martin were among the main corporate sponsors.