Many of the 7,000 local high school graduates this spring will enter a robust tri-county job market with low unemployment and busy companies begging to hire them.
Hotels, restaurants, retail shops and grocery stores are plastered with “help wanted” signs mostly for minimum-wage jobs paying around $7.25 an hour.
Those positions might not be appealing for some young job seekers, not yet ready for the skilled, better-paying positions popping up in the area’s burgeoning manufacturing sector with plane and car makers leading smaller firms that supply them with parts.
Therefore, according to College of Charleston economist Frank Hafner, the recommendation for young, untrained workers skipping a four-year college or the military, is to seek training that could take less than a year for jobs paying twice the minimum wage. There are a variety of fields, where higher paying work can be trained for in relatively short order, he said.
Hafner also said teenagers should not dismiss entry-level jobs like bagging groceries. Entry-level positions, he explained, teach good work ethics and help clarify future job interests and direction. In the wake of the pandemic, he said, the workforce has also changed as Baby Boomers have either retired or dropped out, leaving openings with a quicker path to advancement for younger employees.
In addition to manufacturing, construction, computer science, transportation and logistics, medical services and hospitality are among the hot local jobs. But high school grads are not yet prepared for all of them because of education requirements, said Dr. Cathy Almquist, Trident Technical College’s vice president for education. Many of these jobs require a certificate or a two-year associate degree.
Welders, truck drivers and mechanists are mainstay, well-salaried jobs that are now getting more attention as big manufacturers are moving to the tri-county area, she said. “There has never been a collective realization of that or an emphasis on it,” she said.
“More people are now aware of those types of careers and people are now aware that manufacturing is not the mills of the 1950s.” These are no longer professions where you come home dirty, she added, citing the clean plant floors at companies such as Boeing, Volvo, Mercedes and Bosch.
Hafner dispelled the idea that the pandemic alone is the reason employers are having a tough time filling jobs in a tight labor market. The April unemployment rate was 2.4% in Charleston and North Charleston combined, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
“We still have Covid, but people aren’t avoiding crowds,” he said. “The reasons some jobs go unfilled could be that it is not what graduates want or it does not pay enough.” The trend has been that companies are reluctant to hire unskilled young people, he added. Thus, the more training the better. He does not expect that equation to change anytime soon.
Before 18-year-old Hayden Shiell graduated in late May from Ashley Ridge High School, he was on a career path to become a diesel engine mechanic. During the school week, in addition to his regular academic classes at Ashley Ridge, Shiell also attended a technology classroom at the Dorchester County Career and Technology Center in Ridgeville to study diesel engines. Initially, Shiell wanted to be an electrician, but his buddies were in the diesel class. He switched to the diesel class to hang out with them, he said, then discovered he simply liked diesel engines. Next spring, he plans to enroll in Lincoln College of Technology in Nashville,
Tenn., to enter a 16-month program to earn a diesel engine technician degree.
Decide on a career path early
Some students wait until the last minute to make career decisions, losing valuable time to prepare for that first important job interview beyond a part-time summer gig, said Rania Thompson, career specialist at Woodland High School in Dorchester County School District Four.
“The ones that are accepted to college are ready for the next chapter in their lives,” she said. “Some are going to the military. But we also have some who don’t know what they want to do. They’ve let that senior year creep up on them. The pandemic made a lot of people lazy, unfortunately. We had to sit out for a year, secluded. Now that we can do [things again] we are stuck on not doing anything.”
Employers are calling with jobs that outpace the number of students willing to apply. For those who do apply, she added, they’re often hired at job fairs at the Woodland High School in the Town of Dorchester in Dorchester County.
For several generations society has emphasized a college degree as a means to success, said Chadwick Lindsey Vail, work-based learning partnerships coordinator for the Charleston County School District. Now, he said, a four-year degree can be associated with debt. “While college is right for some students, many could be better served with focused career training,” he said. “The paradigm has shifted to specialized training.”
Vail recommends Trident as a site for short-term training courses to prepare for high-demand skilled positions with companies waiting to fill them. Some of these opportunities also come with the possibility of advancement and even a company-paid undergraduate degree.
Ben Harmon, a technician with Charleston Air Company, saw that trend toward skilled positions shifting in 2017 as he was about to leave the U.S. Air Force in Charleston. While still in the military, Harmon enrolled in a HVAC certificate program at Trident. He wanted to ensure he had a transferable skill to a civilian job. Even before he completed the program last year, Charleston Air had made him a job offer.
When it comes to its degrees and focus each year, Trident uses a two-pronged approach to determine which degree and certificate programs to cut or create, Almquist said. The college uses the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce’s talent demand study and it convenes academic advisory committees of industry leaders twice a year.
“Our No. 1 factor for developing a new program is what the employers in our area are telling us so we can respond quickly to industry demands,” she said. “Every one of our technical disciplines has an advisory committee composed of individuals from that industry.” At Trident, 500 people serve on 40 academic advisory committees.
Willis Cantey, president of Cantey Tech Consulting in North Charleston, serves on one of these. The college, he said, “has been very responsive and has done a spectacular job of trying to adapt to what we are looking for, but there are just not enough graduates to fill the local job market.”
Mobile workshop and career centers
The Charleston County School District has extended its job-training pipeline to the middle school years to expose even younger students to careers, Vail said. Eighth graders are given a career assessment to determine their interests and gifts: “so we can align them with a program of study at one of the district’s three career centers in East Cooper, West Ashley and North Charleston,” Vail said.
Each year students, their parents and their counselors meet to “help students connect with career opportunities and to confirm or eliminate their interests,” Vail said. The district also has an online career exploration toolkit for students and their parents to become prepared for college or a career after high school (charlestonempowered.com).
In Dorchester County, Thompson touts the Department of Employment and Workforce’s Be Pro and Be Proud SC (beprobeproudsc.org). The program features a mobile workshop that arrives at job fairs to show students a variety of skilled careers. Their 53-foot, double expandable 18-wheel custom built trailer has eight simulators for truck diving, forklifts, carpentry and welding to show students that trades are just as respectable as an undergraduate degree.
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