By: Derrek Asberry
Via: Aiken Standard

NORTH AUGUSTA ­— Employers reportedly will need to fill more than 37,000 job openings over the next five years in Aiken and four other counties in a five-county service area.

Students in the region, however, are not choosing careers in the area’s high-demand occupations, such as welding and engineering, according to a Regional Workforce Study conducted by TIP Strategies, a Texas economic-consulting firm hired by the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization.

Tom Stellman, the president of TIP Strategies, presented the findings Wednesday in the Palmetto Terrace room of the North Augusta Municipal Building. The 37,000 job openings, Stellman said, is a “conservative estimate” and stems from both new job creation and replacement employment.

Breaking down the study

The study gathered data using labor analysis and research that included roundtable discussions and interviews with local employers, economic developers, education and training providers, and by using employer surveys.

Specifically, it examined the workforce trends in a five-county service area: Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties in South Carolina and Richmond and Columbia counties in Georgia.

Collected data show that more than 50,000 workers commute into the five-county region for work each day. The region – combined with the commuter counties of McDuffie, Richmond and Burke counties in Georgia and South Carolina’s Edgefield County – creates a nine-county region that employs 400,000 people, TIP Strategies reported.

“The workforce of the SRSCRO region is inextricably linked together,” Stellman said. “This shared labor pool is what also links our region’s employers together.”

Concerns in the numbers

According to the study, about 80 percent of the 37,000 job openings will be replacement jobs – employment availability because of attrition or retirement. The rest, roughly 7,600 jobs, will be new to the region.

Rick McLeod, the executive director of the reuse organization, spoke about Aiken’s biggest employer: the Savannah River Site. McLeod said the site serves as an ongoing example of upcoming replacement jobs, stating that the average age of a site worker is 54. He added that the average age in the manufacturing sector is 48.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for transitions to occur in the next three years,” McLeod said.

Another point Stellman mentioned is that the most popular jobs aren’t always reflected in job availability. The region graduates 7,300 students annually from 15 higher-education institutions. The most popular fields of study are nursing, liberal arts and business administration; those fields, however, don’t match the high-demand occupations, TIP Strategies wrote.

“Bachelor’s degrees in such areas as engineering, computer science and health science are in high-demand,” Stellman said. “Students often choose their majors without this type of labor market information.”

The new model

TIP Strategies said the goal will be creating a more demand-driven workforce that supports recruitment and retention. That mission can be met through collecting information, holding workforce summits, connecting partners to students and job seekers and creating a marketplace that attracts younger workers.

Todd Glover, North Augusta’s city administrator, said the city has embraced those concepts through constructing a new facility for Medac – a provider of services and products to anesthesia-related health care providers that is expected to provide more than 600 jobs.

North Augusta also is in the process of jumping legal hurdles to move forward with Project Jackson, a proposed 25-acre development consisting of a hotel, stores and a baseball stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets that would be between The River Club and Hammond’s Ferry neighborhoods.

“The new model is creating a place where people want to live and then find jobs, which is the opposite of what they used to do,” Glover said. “With the younger millennials, we’re trying to create a place where they would want to live and we think those industries will follow behind them.”

Sufficient employers and employees coming and staying in the region is a top priority, said Susan Winsor, Aiken Technical College president and the chairwoman of the SRSCRO.

“We never ever want to hear from a prospective employer that workforce availability is the reason they went elsewhere,” Winsor said. “We want to be the reason they come here. So it’s up to us to prepare our young people for the jobs of tomorrow.”

David Jameson, the president and CEO of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, added that it’s important not to put “all of our eggs into one basket.”

“We need to also be continuing to attract a workforce in many segments: nuclear, IT, health care and manufacturing,” he said. “We need to also make sure there’s room for advancement in these jobs and not just entry-level positions.”

Collective problem-solving

The way to attract that workforce, Jameson added, is by counties working together instead of competing. He said the issue is not a city-by-city or county-by-county problem. Rather, it is one that impacts each part of the region.

“One area could have a strength that the other doesn’t have. So if we pull those strengths together and work together, we can tackle this workforce issue,” Jameson said.

TIP Strategies made several recommendations, including working with economic development partners to implement teacher programs, events and other initiatives to bring quality employment to the forefront.

McLeod added that the next few months will be spent working to define roles and responsibilities to implement the recommendations.

“We’re interested in making sure we put things in place so that local citizens have an opportunity to get degrees and find quality employment here,” he said.

Derrek Asberry is the SRS beat reporter for the Aiken Standard.