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Charleston Business

South Carolinians prepare for jobs amid a pandemic

By Jim DuPlessis

South Carolinians are struggling to regain some of the career gains they made during the nation’s longest recovery and in the wake of its biggest recession.

The state’s universities and technical schools are gearing up to meet the challenge, reopening under the strange conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic and groping for an elusive “new normal.”

Covid-19 had killed more than 2,500 South Carolinians by September and retained its potential to spread further and faster. Businesses and schools are still cautious, and an unprecedented number of citizens are jobless.

Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina, said the impacts have been uneven.

Jobs most in demand are high-skill, high wage jobs—those that require a certificate, two-year degree or bachelor’s degree. In the first seven months of 2020, those jobs are up 4 percent from a year earlier, despite Covid-19, Von Nessen said.

Those in decline are low-skill, low-wage jobs, those typically requiring no more than a high school diploma. From January through July, those jobs have fallen 10%, he said.

As the state struggles to rebuild, citizens need to consider how best to build on job-training programs, identify those who most need them, “and reach out to them, and provide them the means to acquire these skills so they can enter these jobs that are in high demand right now.”

Health care, manufacturing and education have had the heaviest demand in South Carolina, Von Nessen said.

“Health care, particularly nursing, has been at or near the top for several years,” Von Nessen said. “Among the top 30 occupations in demand, two-thirds of them have been in health care.”

Some of those jobs require four-year degrees; others require two years. 

“Manufacturers are constantly looking for workers,” he said, making the state’s technical college system an extremely vital asset.

Four-year colleges are needed to train elementary and secondary school teachers, who are also in high demand, especially in many of the state’s poorer districts. 

“When we talk about education, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Von Nessen said. “Success does not always mean a four-year degree. It depends on the individual, and there are multiple paths to success.”

Jack Ellenberg, associate vice president of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives, Clemson University, said the state’s technical college system and its readySC workforce training program are valuable tools to fill talent gaps in the state. Still, the need for graduates equipped with four-year degrees continues to grow.

“We are seeing a trend in advanced manufacturing where higher skill sets are required,” Ellenberg said. “From the work we do with the university’s strategic corporate partners, we know companies are seeking access to Clemson’s students to develop and refine their talent pipeline.”

“Businesses are hiring, even now with Covid-19 impact projects, and they want employees with leadership skills and technical understanding,” he said.

That hope is needed for the thousands of South Carolinians emerging from a recession like no other.

Lockdowns and layoffs from the Covid-19 pandemic began in earnest in March, and by April South Carolina had 257,000 fewer jobs than in April 2019, an 11.8 percent drop. Jobs across the nation fell 13.4 percent. 

Not only are both the state and national numbers the largest one-month drops since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began charting non-farm employment in 1939, but they are roughly twice the magnitude of the previous 80 years: a 6.5 percent drop in South Carolina in June 2009 near the end of the Great Recession, and a U.S. drop of 7.6 percent in September 1945, the month World War II ended.

Some of the jobs swept away by the pandemic had been recovered by July. South Carolina was down 112,500 jobs, a 5.1 percent loss, while the nation was down 7.7 percent.

About half the state’s job losses in April and July were from restaurants, hotels and stores. The state lost 129,600 jobs from April 2019 to April 2020, a 56.5 percent drop, and was down by 58,300 jobs in July, a 15.2 percent drop.

“In two years, when we finally get back to a closer semblance of the levels of productivity and hiring we had before the pandemic, finding these people could be hard,” said Frank Hefner, an economist and director of the College of Charleston’s Office of Economic Analysis.

“People leave the workforce, they shift careers, they leave the area. It’s very hard to predict how that will play out.”

Hefner said oftentimes the workers for jobs businesses are scrambling to fill have moved to follow higher wages.

“If you talk to employers, there’s always that constant complaint that they can’t find the kind of workers they’re looking for,” Hefner said. “You can’t find the worker you want at the wage you’re paying. If you change the wage, you might be able to find them.”

Average hourly pay in South Carolina was $24.72 for non-government jobs in 2019, compared with $28 nationally, according to annual averages from the BLS Current Employment Statistics. A BLS quarterly census of all employees found South Carolina pay ranked 47th among the states and Washington, D.C., in 2019’s fourth quarter, with lower pay found only Montana, Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi.

For years, South Carolina’s wage gap was blamed on the dominance of textiles, which entered the state on a large scale in the 1880s, and only began declining as an employer in the 1970s.

Since then, South Carolina business and political leaders have been struggling to remake manufacturing. The arrival of Michelin in the 1970s, BMW in the 1990s, Boeing in the 2000s and their subsequent expansions have tempered overall manufacturing job losses and created more high-paying, high-skill jobs.

The pandemic was a setback to manufacturing here and elsewhere. The state lost 13,700 manufacturing jobs in April, a 5.3 percent drop. In July, the state had narrowed manufacturing losses to 6,900 jobs, or 2.6 percent. Nationally, manufacturing jobs were down 5.7 percent in July.

But some of those gains were being lost before the pandemic. In Charleston, Boeing is furloughing people and asking others for voluntary separations. “And there’s not much that’s come to take its place,”Hefner said.

On the other end of the skills divide are cooks, servers, hotel clerks and others whose work was cut back or eliminated by the need for social distancing.

Barrie Kirk, provost at Midlands Technical College, said service workers who lost jobs because of Covid-19 have skills more valuable than they might realize.

“Many of the skills that they have are transferable to other industries — things like great communications skills, negotiating, having a positive attitude, working on a team, time management, resilience,” she said. “There are so many foundational skills they already have that make it easy for them, if they just layer on the education and training.”

“Many of them need to get to work quickly,” she said.

For educators, trends that developed over the 10 years of the economic recovery from 2009 through 2019 have been upended by the pandemic. 

The long-term view shows slow changes in the composition of the state’s workforce that reflects a mix of South Carolina-specific economic developments and national trends. The post-pandemic view shows the vulnerability of many South Carolinians caught up in close-contact businesses like restaurants, which have been among the state’s fastest growing employment sectors.

Most broad job categories rise in most years. One way to gauge the significance of changes is to see how large a slice of the state’s job pie each category claims.

Looking at average annual employment from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the most significant job gains in the state during the economic recovery from 2009 to 2019 came from:

Cooks, servers and other restaurant workers. They grew from 8.5 percent of the state’s employees in 2009 to 9.4 percent in 2019. Restaurant jobs account for about three out of four jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector. The share of non-restaurant jobs remained stable at 3 percent.

Transportation equipment manufacturing boosted by expansion of BMW, Boeing and some suppliers. They accounted for 1.4 percent of jobs in 2009 and 2.4 percent in 2019.

Transportation and warehousing jobs, which include UPS, FedEx and Amazon, have increased from 2.6 percent of jobs to 3.3 percent in 2019.

Employment services, largely made up of temporary workers, grew from 2.1 percent of the state’s jobs in 2009 to 3.5 percent in 2019.

Sectors with shrinking shares include durable goods manufacturing, excluding transportation equipment, which fell from 5 percent of the state’s jobs in 2009 to 4.6 percent in 2019, while non-durable goods manufacturing fell from 5.2 percent to 4.8 percent.

Another major sector of job losses has been among retail stores, a trend that began at least by 2000. Retail employment has diminished from 12.3 percent of jobs in 2009 to 11.5 percent in 2019.

Government jobs are an economic flywheel. The numbers of teachers in public schools, police, fire fighters, nurses at Veterans Administration hospitals and, of course, tax collectors and codes enforcers tend to be more stable through economic cycles.

For example, the government workforce fell behind private employment growth during the expansion, falling from a 19.6 percent share of jobs in 2009 to a 17 percent share in 2019.

This can also be seen by the number of employees. Government jobs in South Carolina grew 2.6 percent during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, while total jobs dove 6.5 percent. During the recovery from 2009 to 2019, government jobs grew 4.7 percent, while total jobs grew 20.7 percent.

Government work gives the Midlands that special advantage — and disadvantage — by virtue of Columbia, said Kirk of Midlands Tech.

“As the state capital we have so many state government jobs that are open in the Midlands,” Kirk said. “The state government piece of our employment here is so critical. It keeps us from having strong peaks and strong valleys. It keeps our employment a little more stable in the Midlands than anywhere else.”

Health care has generally been one of the fastest growing sectors, but it depends where the job is located. While outpatient clinics could claim an increase in their share of the state’s jobs from 3.7 percent in 2009 to 4.5 percent in 2019, hospitals went the opposite way, with their share falling from 3.7 percent to 4.5 percent.

Midlands Tech serves about 14,000 students on a two-year academic track and an equal number who take classes for certificates or other mid-career training.

The average age of Midlands Tech students is about 27. Many have families and job obligations. 

Like other schools, Kirk said the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how students learn. Online classes were growing before 2020, and represented about 10 percent of classes before the pandemic.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would have two-thirds of our classes online or virtual this fall,” she said. 

Online and virtual classes provide students with more flexibility, which is especially important for older students.

“We can do more virtually now than we ever dreamed of,” she said. “I’m not saying it will stay in that mode forever, but it will surely be a lot more than the 10 percent we were used to.”

In-person classes are needed for classes involving heavy use of equipment, such as automotive, welding and heating and air conditioning. With those trades, she said, “you have to be able to touch the equipment, take things apart and put them back together.”

In those cases, students and instructors are required to wear masks and stay at least six feet apart. Also, many of those classes are in large open spaces. 

Midlands is also splitting many classes. A class that might have met with 20 people in the morning now is scheduled with 10 in the morning and 10 in the afternoon.

Universities opened their campuses cautiously this fall with in-person classes, while keeping a close eye on Covid-19 cases. They are also relying heavily on virtual learning, and its role in a post-pandemic world is uncertain, said USC’s Von Nessen.

In any case, he said, “a new normal will be established” for university education. 

“The whole university system is being upended.”