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Lawmakers: Lack of workforce threatens economic development statewide

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State Sen. John Matthews Jr. said employers in Orangeburg County can’t find enough workers to fill more than 2,300 open positions even though many in his district don’t have jobs.

Orangeburg County had the fifth-highest unemployment rate in March at 8.9%, according to data from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, which was down from 10.2% a year earlier.

Matthews, a Democrat who represents residents in parts of Berkeley, Calhoun, Colleton, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, said the problem is “primarily because their skill sets do not match up with the needs” of employers.

“If we’re going to sustain the economic growth that we now have, we’ve got to develop the workforce to keep that going,” Matthews said during a Berkeley Chamber of Commerce legislative delegation luncheon last week. “Currently, we’re not on track to do that.”

Matthews, who serves on the education and finance committees, said South Carolina needs 73,000 college graduates by 2030. Fewer graduates entering the teaching profession, especially in math and science, and a lack of college-educated and skilled workers represent a threat to the state’s economy, he said.

“If we just keep the same level, we won’t get there to produce that workforce we’ve got to have if we’re going to be competitive in the next 25 to 30 years, and that’s a big issue,” he said. “I think there are two things that are going to drive our economy in the next 25 years: It’s whether we fix our roads and whether we educate our kids.”

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, echoed Matthews’ concerns and suggested the workforce situation simmering underneath the state’s recent economic development successes could undermine those efforts in the future.

“No surprise that we’ve done a very good job in South Carolina recruiting and expanding business over the last decade, but now we really have to pay attention,” Bennett said. “I think kind of a dirty little secret is we very well could run into a real problem with workforce development moving forward if we don’t commit some more resources to that area.”

Matthews said 23% of college students are working toward science, technology, engineering and math degrees in South Carolina, but that amount needs to triple to meet the workforce demands facing the state.

“We’re not producing sufficient teachers to teach our kids. We’re coming up every year 2,000 teachers short that are certified to teach in our classrooms,” he said.

Matthews said when you look at teachers specializing in STEM disciplines, the number is even worse. He said a survey conducted several months ago showed the state’s colleges expect to graduate 38 students to teach in math.

“We cannot produce a well-qualified workforce with 38 teachers being certified in math coming out. That's a big issue for us,” Matthews said.

For South Carolina to be competitive, he said, the state might need to look at recruiting teachers in math and science fields differently than it has in the past by paying them what they could make in the business sector.

“I really think at some point, we’re going to have to start paying market rates for teachers in those STEM-related subjects because the private sector will get them every time,” Matthews said.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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