By Christina Lee Knauss
Students from around the Midlands are learning about career opportunities in manufacturing this week through a special event taking place on the campus of Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. in West Columbia.
The Creators Wanted workforce development exhibition is making its only South Carolina stop at the West Columbia plant. It is the brainchild of The National Association of Manufacturers and its workforce development and education partner The Manufacturing Institute. The touring exhibit was developed as a way to both showcase careers in manufacturing and inspire future creators.
One goal, organizers say, is for young people inspired by the exhibit to eventually help ease the ever-increasing national shortage of employees needed to fill a growing number of manufacturing jobs.
“We’re out here to inspire, educate and empower young people about choosing careers in manufacturing,” said Chrys Kefalas, vice president of brand strategy for the National Association of Manufacturers. “There are currently 900,000 open jobs in manufacturing in the U.S. — a record — and there’s going to be a need for 4 million manufacturing jobs here between now and 2030, and we want to show the students what these careers have to offer them.”
Representatives from area manufacturers such as Trane Technologies, Honda and Nephron will be on hand through Friday with information about their products and career opportunities. PTC, a software developer, also has a display that shows how augmented reality can be used to help workers in the field access information to fix a wide variety of products.
The biggest feature of the exhibit is an RV set up with a series of “escape room”-type features centered around manufacturing. It works just like the popular attractions of the same name that require participants to solve a riddle or mystery before they can leave a locked room, only in this case students must use math, science and logic skills to solve manufacturing-related problems.
On Wednesday, the exhibit’s first day, more than 250 area students toured the exhibit. Gov. Henry McMaster joined with Nephron owner and CEO Lou Kennedy to take the tour with a group of students from Brookland-Cayce and Airport high schools who study at the Innovation Center in Lexington School District 2. Many of the students who attended are juniors and seniors interested in science and technology who are beginning to seriously consider career paths.
Kennedy said the exhibition offers her company and others an important chance to let young people know just how much the manufacturing sector in South Carolina has to offer them.
“Students need to be aware that many of these jobs we are talking about are high-paying jobs, with salaries in the mid-70s, which is much higher than the average salary in South Carolina,” Kennedy said. “There’s no need for our students to be looking out of state when we have these kinds of jobs right here in the Midlands. We encourage students to look at what we at Nephron have to offer — we’re hiring at all levels — and we encourage them look at what other companies have to offer, and use all the opportunities available to them.”
Kennedy said she also encourages other manufacturing companies to reach out to their local schools to promote career opportunities through programs such as youth apprenticeships.
“I tell companies that if you’re not involved in your local schools, you’re missing out on opportunities to find future employees,” she said.
“Our goal in being out here is to make sure these students understand there are lots of opportunities for them with us,” said Gregg Krick, plant manager at Trane Technologies, which builds HVAC equipment at its plant off I-77 in northeast Columbia near Blythewood. “We recently quadrupled our workforce and expanded our facility and we’re going to need even more employees in the near future. I’m impressed because I’ve already talked with several students who have a genuine interest in what we do.”
Kefalas estimates that 500 area students will have taken part in Creators Wanted by the time the exhibition closes on Friday.