South Carolina wrestles with same aviation workforce issues as Wichita

A presentation by a South Carolina official on how it is developing the next generation of manufacturing workers offered both vindication and new ideas for area executives and officials.

James Stephens of the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission was the keynote speaker at the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “Building a Pipeline for Advanced Manufacturing” presentation at the National Center for Aviation Training.

Stephens said there are about 400 aerospace companies in his state. Boeing’s 787 assembly plant in Charleston is the largest with about 6,000 employees.

“If the attrition rate is 5 percent, 300 technicians a year might be needed within that facility,” he said. “With our current tech school structure and the output that we have, we’re not putting out enough even to meet that. That’s not even counting the myriad of other jobs that are in aviation and aerospace.”

Aerospace is one of two industry clusters the state focuses on. The other is logistics.

Creating a pipeline of workers skilled in aerospace manufacturing became an area of emphasis about five years ago, Stephens said. The state is addressing the pipeline issue three ways: creating an aerospace curriculum for high schools, promoting a broad campaign to increase awareness of aerospace careers, and connecting education from kindergarten to college with industry to prepare a future workforce.

“For us, it’s not about the competition but the future of the industry in South Carolina,” Stephens said. “It’s a collaborative effort to advance and market South Carolina’s aerospace industry cluster.”

A big challenge, he said, is to get the state’s school districts and 16 technical schools to be a part of the aerospace workforce development effort. One way they’re doing it is by offering incentives to high schools to adopt an aerospace curriculum for students. They’ve done so through South Carolina’s department of education, which made available funding for high schools to implement an aerospace engineering curriculum. Six high schools signed up in the first year, each receiving $50,000 for implementation, including teacher training at Georgia Tech and “hardware” for the classroom.

“We’ve kicked that goal off and it is going well,” he said. “We do fully anticipate we’ll probably get another 12 to 15 (high schools) next year that are considering this program.”

On the technical school side, the main hurdle has been to change the individual schools’ thinking from serving the needs of local employers to industry-specific needs, he said. The state does offer a number of programs at the technical college level to attract skilled workers, including Apprenticeship Carolina, in which technical college students earn money while they’re learning a new trade and progress up the wage scale as they demonstrate competency in technical skills.

“As I sat and listened to James, there was a lot of validation on some great things we’re doing but many ah-has in terms of what we need to do next,” Jim Walters, senior vice president of human resources at Textron Aviation, said in a panel discussion after Stephen’s speech.


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