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Charleston Business

Timber and metalwork may be key industries in Georgetown, but the county also supplies other areas with workers

By Dustin Waters

With a wealth of natural resources supporting the area’s leading industries, Georgetown County is focused on small, sustainable growth as the key to economic success.

The third-largest timber producer in South Carolina, Georgetown County owes a great deal to the area’s robust woodlands, which supply the area’s leading employers. International Paper serves as the county’s largest private sector employer, with around 800 workers. Combined with timber company Interfor, this means around 1,000 direct jobs dedicated to wood products, in addition to an estimated 2,000 indirect jobs supported by those companies such as loggers, foresters, and commercial truck drivers. Just last year, Interfor announced $35-40 million in capital investments to expand their Georgetown facility. 

Metalworks currently stands as the county’s second leading industry. Liberty Steel currently employs around 150 workers in Georgetown. Once the plant reaches full capacity, Liberty Steel estimates that number could reach around 270 workers. This would be welcome news for local workers who find themselves leaving the county each day for work. 

“We have a huge outmigration of residents going to work in other counties—everything from white collar professional services all the way to medium- and low-skill labor. But what we have that a lot of other counties don’t have is a large outmigration of blue collar, skilled labor,” says Brian Tucker, director of economic development for Georgetown County, who adds that the county’s unemployment rate is currently at a historic low of 4 percent. 

Around 29 percent of Georgetown County workers commute more than 50 miles for work. According to Tucker, approximately 3,000 of Georgetown’s highly skilled, blue collar workers—such as plumbers, metal workers, fabricators, electricians—find themselves among those employed outside of the county. These commutes become even more of an issue when considering that Georgetown residents face an average drivetime of 45 minutes due to the area’s large outmigration.

“When we do have an announcement or expansion, many of the employees who end up taking those jobs are residents of the county that are currently leaving the county for work, but want to come back to the county to work,” says Tucker. “It’s a really good story for us to tell on that side of the coin. The other side is trying to capture a younger generation and help them understand the potential of manufacturing and industry.”

The Georgetown Economic Development Alliance is currently working alongside Horry Georgetown Technical College on the construction of a new 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing center. Once fully operational, the center will feature programs in advanced welding, CNC, machine tool, robotics, and mechatronics. 

Of course, Georgetown County is also comfortably situated between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. This offers the county access to the resources available in those larger cities, as well as the unintended benefits of those two cities’ rapid growth. 

“I’m afraid Charleston is getting to, if they aren’t already there, a tipping point where it’s going to be tough for them to sustain the growth that they’ve had,” says Tucker. “I think they know that, and I think they are starting to reorient some of their priorities to look at quality of life solutions for traffic, land cost, housing cost. I have no doubt they will find a great way to handle that, but I think we do stand to benefit from some of the overflow from Charleston’s growth.”

In the meantime, Tucker says his main focus is finding the right niche for Georgetown County. For him, that means pursuing smaller manufacturing operations, rather than chasing after some white whale. 

“We don’t aggressively recruit projects that require 500-1,000 jobs. That’s just not something we’re going to be able to satisfy. For us, we like to target projects in that 50-100 job range and we think that we are well-suited for those,” says Tucker. “We are trying to actively target wood products, metal fab—which includes automotive and aviation—and chemical operations. A good core of our workforce understands chemical operations. We’re just trying to stick to the things that we’ve historically done well.”