Not your father’s workforce

SC economic development leaders want to dispel qualms about manufacturing jobs

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BMW Scholars undergo robot training at BMW Manufacturing Co. Photo courtesy of BMW Manufacturing Co.

After the drawn-out demise of textile industries in the United States, shell-shocked baby boomers have been reluctant to encourage their children to pursue jobs they deemed unstable, instead ushering them to more concrete college degrees — to become doctors, nurses, or experts in computer science.

Now, economic development leaders are trying to persuade students — and their parents — to consider the oftentimes lucrative opportunities in burgeoning manufacturing careers.

Mark Farris, president and CEO of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said that although parent reluctance has lessened in recent years, there still aren’t enough students with manufacturing training to meet the demand.

“I guess I grew up in the textile mill era, and the last thing you wanted to see was your child maybe working in a textile mill, but that’s changed so dramatically now that a well-trained young person can get out with a two-year degree, for example, from Greenville Tech and make $50,000 a year,” Farris said. “Manufacturing is not the unsophisticated, dirty, potentially dangerous work that it used to be — it’s actually quite the opposite.”

Two years ago, Greenville Technical College built its Center for Manufacturing Innovation. David Clayton, the center’s director, said the school has been working to change that perspective for a while.

“Students don’t even think about the opportunities because they’ve never been exposed to it,” Clayton said.

In 1957, not long after employment in the textile industry in the South peaked, 7.2 million Americans over the age of 25 had completed four years of college, according to the United States Census Bureau. In 2017, the number of people over 25 with four years of college was 10 times that amount. At the start of 2018, Federal Reserve data show student debt topped $1.5 trillion.

Several manufacturing programs at Greenville Tech offer something many degrees don’t — the opportunity to go to school and work simultaneously, with industries footing the bill.

Jermaine Whirl, vice president of learning and workforce development with Greenville Tech, said the students have guaranteed jobs after graduation through various scholars programs.

“Pretty much all the large manufacturers in our area have tech-scholar programs,” Whirl said. “It would allow you to go to college for half the day, work at the facility half the day, and have the company pay for it all.”

Because the positions require students to have focused, technical skills, Whirl said many of the job opportunities right after graduation offer more than $50,000 starting.

“[We’re] trying to kill the perception that this is bad for students coming out of high school and making parents much more aware of the options,” Whirl said.

Clayton said students in these specialized degrees are learning more technical skills than manufacturers in the past.

“It’s a more interesting time to work in manufacturing than it’s ever been,” Clayton said.

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