Imagine if South Carolina had not had its much-touted series of state technical colleges over the last 50 years.
“We would be the dry bone in the valley without any skills,” says retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who served as governor from 1959 to 1963 and is considered the father of the state’s technical education system. (Full disclosure: I used to work for him.)
Today, as the 16 campuses of the system are accommodating more students and training them for jobs at places like BMW, Boeing and Continental Tire, there’s less money, with state funding barely above what was appropriated more than 20 years ago.
“Our technical colleges train over 60 percent of the middle-skilled technicians employed,” says Ben Dillard, president of Florence-Darlington Technical College. “I believe that without our colleges the manufacturing economy in South Carolina would collapse.”
Mary Thornley, head of Trident Technical College in the Charleston area, says the technical training system has been a game-changer for South Carolina workers because it attracts new employers.
“I can’t imagine our state without technical colleges,” she says. “We would be less able to compete in the global economy without them. Whenever training is required to meet a need in a community, the technical colleges step up and deliver. … Many of our well-respected employers probably would not have located here if not for the technical college system.”
Robbie Barnett, an associate vice president at the state Chamber of Commerce, says South Carolina likely now would not be one of the fastest-growing economies in the Southeast without the state’s technical training system.
“Our citizens continue to depend on them to make higher education accessible and affordable, and businesses continue to look to them for their workforce training,” he says.
Of all the students at public colleges and universities in the state, more than half are undergraduates in the state’s technical education system. In the fall of 2012, the system’s full-time equivalency enrollment was 62,456 students. That’s almost double the 33,581 FTE students from 20 years earlier.
During that same span, state funding rose from $111.6 million in 1993 to a peak of $171.3 million in 2000, only to drop to $97.5 million during the Great Recession.
If that peak funding level were adjusted for inflation, it would equal $237 million in today’s dollars, according to a federal inflation calculator. But funding in the 2014-15 budget is just $123.7 million.
Bottom line: The state’s tech school system today is training twice as many students with half of the money it had more than a decade ago.
Technical training offers businesses a way to get skilled workers trained in the way that they want them trained.
“Industry is touchy, touchy, touchy about learning skills their way,” Hollings says.
He says he brought the technical education to South Carolina after witnessing a training program in Ohio in the late 1950s. At the time, South Carolina was moving away from an agrarian economy. Textiles, the state’s manufacturing backbone, were encountering foreign threats as well as peaks and valleys of work. For the state to grow, Hollings thought it had to be able to offer businesses something different and compelling.
What he came up with was a 100-day pledge — a promise to a company that if it moved to the Palmetto State, he would guarantee the company would have a facility and workers to run it within 100 days. Technical training was the key part of that promise.
“He was taking a lot of risk saying, ‘We’ll give you a building and workers within 100 days,’” says Jimmie Williamson, appointed this year to head of the S.C. Technical College System. “He was able to deliver.”
In the years since, the state has been able to attract brand names like BMW and Boeing by being nimble enough to provide the skilled training they needed. Boeing, for example, has trained 2,800 workers through Trident Tech in a few short years, according to the college’s David Hansen.
“We are the engine that has helped this economy rebound because we stayed strong,” Williamson said, adding that the system’s various training programs allowed workers to get new specialized skills to be able to rejoin the workforce.
“We have not been given the credit for the recovery that we maybe should have. We are an important factor in that whole equation.”
In the years ahead, technical colleges plan to keep up with the developing needs of industry.
“We are in lock step with what’s happening in terms of economic development,” Williamson says. “As the technical college system goes, so goes the state. Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would have been an aeronautics and automobile hub? Whatever is identified as an emerging need, we are going to try to fill that void and fill that niche.”
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