AIKEN TECHNICAL COLLEGE is the most important institution in our community for creating a large pool of skilled workers by offering high-quality worker training programs. In looking at the needs of the community for a trained work force, three points should be made.
First, industry places a high value on the graduates of a strong technical college and/or the state technical college system. In a recent survey, Aiken companies identified several factors that influenced their decision to locate or expand in Aiken County. The top factors were:
Long-term cost of doing business.
Availability of skilled labor.
Quality of worker training programs.
A supportive climate for business growth.
The second tier of factors included tax incentives, availability of suitable existing buildings, transportation and other infrastructure, and quality of life issues.
SINCE TWO OF the top four factors - skilled labor and worker training - can be greatly influenced by available technical training, the presence of Aiken Technical College is a high priority. When we talk with a potential new industry considering our area or work with existing companies interested in expanding their operations, one of the first items of discussion concerns the availability of a well-trained, skilled work force. ATC helps answer that question!
One of the goals of the Economic Development Partnership is to recruit innovative technology companies that pay higher wages which generally require higher-level skills. Aiken Technical College provides the training needed to meet industry's skill needs in the local labor force. ATC has knowledgeable instructors, modern equipment and a desire to deliver the training necessary to ensure product quality.
SECOND, AIKEN Technical College plays an important role through its mission of educating and training our community's adults. ATC is the primary institution in Aiken County responsible for upgrading adult skills for a 21st century work force. U.S. Labor Department projections indicate that 70 percent of all future jobs will require more than a high school education and less than a four-year college degree.
Compared to this standard, Aiken County has far too many adults aged 25 or older with only a high school education or less (61.2 percent) and too few (21.6 percent) with some college or a two-year degree. ATC offers solutions to help workers and industry meet projected educational level and training needs for the next decade.
Third, Aiken Technical College is a "partner" in helping the Economic Development Partnership attract new or existing industry expansion investments in Aiken County. I would give up just about every other economic incentive if we had the skilled work force that a new industry requires.
The reason is that the sooner a new company can reach its production goals, the sooner it makes a profit. Reaching production goals requires skilled manpower. While it is difficult to assign a dollar value to the contribution made by our educational institutions, I can say, "If they weren't here, industry would not come."
TO ASSESS THE contribution of Aiken Technical College to the growth of the community and its industrial base, the critical measure is whether or not industry uses ATC's facilities. If that is a valid measure, then I suggest a significant portion of the capital investment and new jobs in Aiken County is attributable to the aggressive approach ATC has taken in meeting the needs of industry.
The Economic Development Partnership reports annually the amount of capital investments in new or existing businesses in Aiken County. From 1990 to 2001, cumulative capital investments totaled approximately $5.2 billion, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce.
During that time, there were peaks and valleys in the amount of investment. The highest year was 1997 with over $891 million, while the lowest year was in 2001 with over $215 million. By averaging investments over 12 years, peaks and valleys are smoothed to an average of $433 million annually.
HOW MUCH OF that annual capital investment can be attributed to the presence of ATC, I don't know. What I do know is that without our "partner" to train the work force, those numbers would not be nearly so high.
I recently participated in a focus group discussing the value of ATC in our local economy. Participant after participant noted the specific ways that the college was helping their employees with training and education to enhance work place skills. A survey asked company representatives to estimate what percentage of impact ATC's presence had on their company's location or expansion decision. As expected, for some it was relatively low and for others it ranked high among the various factors influencing their decision.
A SURVEY OF local industry leaders conducted in other areas across the state indicated that approximately 20 percent of investments in new or expanding operations would not have occurred if it had not been for the presence of a local technical college. Because ATC was providing the training that new industry was looking for and that existing industry needed to upgrade its work force skills, business felt comfortable in investing in new equipment.
Based on the survey, the availability of educational and training programs could have accounted for 20 percent of the $5.2 billion in investments since 1990. What is important, though, is that as a community we have a solid industrial base with well-trained workers in highly demanding technical jobs.
SKILLS HAVE TO be taught and there is only one institution in the community dedicated to training manufacturing workers - and that's ATC.
By any measure ATC is a highly valued partner, critical to the mission of providing new capital investment and jobs for residents of Aiken County.
(Editor's note: The writer is the director of the Economic Development Partnership.)