ManuFirst SC Helps Workers Accelerate into Manufacturing Jobs

Richard Breen

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

As South Carolina continues to enjoy an extended period of low unemployment, a new pathway has been created to answer the demand for manufacturing workers.

A training program originally developed for Volvo Car USA in the Lowcountry is being expanded statewide and rebranded as ManuFirst SC. The 62-hour program introduces workers to lean manufacturing and provides safety training.

“This is a way to expand the applicant pool for manufacturers in South Carolina,” said Elisabeth Kovacs, deputy director for workforce development at the S.C. Department of Commerce. “How do we get additional folks who aren’t traditionally employed in manufacturing?”

That question speaks to a longtime riddle of the hiring process: employers want workers with experience, but workers who want experience need a way to get it. Like many Palmetto State manufacturers, Volvo requires applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent, a completed WorkKeys assessment of workplace skills, and one year of prior manufacturing experience.

As Volvo began construction of its factory in Berkeley County, it conducted community conversations. It heard concerns about job opportunities, particularly from rural residents nearby who’d had limited access to manufacturing jobs.

“We really wanted to be a good neighbor,” said Stephanie Mangini, Volvo’s corporate communications manager for South Carolina. “How do we keep to our commitment and still be able to build cars?”

Mangini said Volvo spoke with Trident Technical College about compressing its two-year advanced manufacturing certificate program into something that could serve as the equivalent of one year of experience, allowing more local residents to apply for jobs.

The 62-hour program was created and Volvo has since hired approximately three dozen graduates for its facility, which began full production in September. Trident has expanded the program to Charleston and Dorchester counties and additional manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz Vans LLC in North Charleston, agreed to accept graduates.

“It really opened up a lot of opportunities for folks,” Mangini said. “It’s great to see the program grow in that way.”

Berkeley County School District is also preparing to offer the program in its high schools.

“Those kids can go straight to work if they choose not to go to post-secondary education,” Kovacs said.

Spartanburg Community College has also adopted the program at the behest of BMW suppliers in the area and has already graduated approximately a dozen workers.

“It’s a good start,” said Carter Smith, executive vice president with the Spartanburg Economic Futures Group. “We’re all looking at how to improve the skill sets of workers in our area.”

South Carolina’s unemployment rate in August was 3.4 percent, with a record 2,227,867 individuals working. Commerce Department spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said that when unemployment was in the double digits at the height of the recession, “we never thought we’d ever see numbers as low as we’ve seen.”

“That’s why we’ve had to get creative,” she said.

Six hundred people have earned certificates so far, according to Kovacs. It’s drawn participants from a variety of prior occupations, from bus drivers to security guards.

Kovacs said expansion of ManuFirst SC will be driven by demand. For those who applied through a county government, including Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester and the pilot program in Spartanburg, the program has been free for students.

Going forward, there will also be grant money available from the S.C. Technical College System. As ManuFirst SC rolls out, additional counties may also provide scholarships.