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Finding skilled workers an ongoing challenge for manufacturers

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Manufacturers talked about workforce development and other challenges during a GSA Business Report Power Event on Thursday. (Photo/Kathy Allen)Most of the 5,400 manufacturers in South Carolina have fewer than 100 employees, and finding and retaining skilled workers continues to be an ongoing challenge, said industry officials during an event Thursday night.

Chuck Spangler, president of the S.C. Manufacturing Extension Partnership, said the workforce challenge covers all areas, including engineers, supply chain managers and skilled labor.

“It’s a big problem everywhere you go,” he said. “The biggest need we’re seeing right now is as small to midsize manufacturers become more advanced, their employees are not.”

Spangler was part of a discussion on manufacturing Thursday during a GSA Business Report Power Event.

For Arch Thomason, CEO of Sunland Logistics Solutions, it is difficult first to find the workforce he needs, then compete with manufacturers for that workforce.

“From a logistics perspective, as a service provider, we serve manufacturers. So what keeps me up at night is labor,” he said. “Manufacturers generally pay 20% to 30% more than a service provider can afford to. We have to compete with BMW, Michelin and Bosch, and it’s a challenge for us. We spend a lot of effort and money on recruiting and hiring the right people.”

Manufacturers are turning to technical schools for assistance in getting the skilled workers they need. Michael Schrader, vice president of Greenville operations for Bausch and Lomb, said his company goes to the technical schools to hire interns.

“When I started working, skilled trades were plentiful and people stayed. Things weren’t as integrated,” he said. “A lot of those things are gone now. A lot is integrated and it’s all electronic. You have to bring people in and teach them those skills.”

Schrader said Bausch and Lomb is working with Greenville Technical College to get “what we call a manufacturing associates degree.” He said it would bring students into a manufacturing environment and teach subjects like basic safety and recordkeeping, and provide a certificate so “they can go into manufacturing hitting the ground running.”

Mike McCormick, vice president and technical plant manager for Bosch Rexroth in Fountain Inn, said workforce development is key for all manufacturers. He said Bosch Rexroth is engaged at the middle school, high school and graduate levels.

“We’ve become a partner in education,” he said.

“Not all those students are going to come work for us, but overall, it’s in our own interest and in the interest of our community to be a partner in education,” he said.

Safely and efficiently moving product is another concern for manufacturers.

The Inland Port Greer has helped make that process easier for companies, according to Jack Ellenburg, senior vice president of strategic projects with the S.C. Ports Authority. He said the investment in the Inland Port is doing what it set out to do — open transportation options inland.

“When we did our projection on growth, our model was considered successful if by year five we moved 40,000 containers annually,” Ellenberg said. “We moved 42,000 in year one, 75,000 in year two and 106,000 in year three. We closed our books last month on the fiscal year at 121,000.”

Chandis Digby, Milliken Chemical Co. director of supply chain and customer service, said the more hands that touch Milliken’s shipments, the more likely a product could become damaged. So how does the company combat that?

We file a lot of claims and go through packaging redesigns,” she said.

Reach Teresa Cutlip at 864-720-1223.

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