Survey Says… Lowcountry Employers Need the Right Skills

Photo by Kevin Ku via Unsplash

Employers in the growing Charleston Metro are scrambling for employees, particularly those with STEM skills, and are combing the nation and boosting compensation packages to recruit for those positions.  But there are two barriers to hiring:

1. Many prospective employees are disappointed by the low pay.

2. There is a mismatch between the skills needed and the skills of the local population.

Those are two of the key findings of a survey of area employers by the Center for Business Research of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, commissioned by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. It found that for non-manufacturing companies that responded, recruitment, retention, and higher wage expectations were the three top workplace challenges.

The online survey yielded responses from 51 employers representing nearly 38,000 workers. Nearly half the respondents were manufacturing companies, with their own set of challenges. Indeed, manufacturing companies rated soft skills and technical skills their top two workplace issues, with the lack of qualified applicants third.

Educational institutions, both regionally and statewide, have been working hard to establish the advance degree programs necessary to feed the pipeline of relevant employee skills. The Lowcountry Graduate Center has offered advanced degrees in a variety of disciplines dear to local tech firms, including engineering management and project management. The LGC hosts a variety of graduate certificate courses and is constantly working with partner institutions to establish new programs that will train today’s students in the skills the local industry is hungry for.

Low Pay an Issue…
While many jobs in advanced manufacturing, IT, healthcare and other high-demand positions offer premium pay and benefits, many other jobs in high demand, like construction trades and hospitality, offer low pay. According to Indeed, the average hourly pay for a carpenter in the Charleston Metro area is $17.36, or about $35,000 annually, insufficient to afford the median home price in Goose Creek, the least expensive area in the Charleston Metropolitan region.

Hospitality workers in the Charleston region earn an average of about $12.00/hour, or $25,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That pay puts nearly any homeownership or other means of asset-building out of reach.

But Even Great Jobs Go Begging
At the same time, many area employers complain that they offer above-average pay and benefits, but still can’t find willing, qualified employees. In a story in the Charleston Post and Courier last year, manufacturing companies pointed to vocational programs at area colleges that boast 100% job placement but declining enrollment.

Phish Labs, a cybersecurity and threat intelligence company based in Charleston, is competing nationally for software engineers, says Susan Rybicki, vice president of talent and training. “We’re always looking for great software engineers and supplementing with offshore talent because of the market gap. I would happily take another dozen if I could,” she said.

The Educational Landscape
The Citadel, College of Charleston and Clemson University have all established or beefed up their undergraduate or graduate computer science and engineering programs at the behest of area industry. Other offerings are likely to follow and show up in the classrooms at the Lowcountry Graduate Center. The LGC currently offers graduate-level engineering management and project management curricula to produce the leaders STEM industries need.

But even that is insufficient to sustain the growth in employment in this market, says Claire Gibbons, director of global marketing and communications at the Charleston Regional Business Alliance. “While higher education institutions are diversifying their curricula, it’s still not scaling with the numbers businesses require to be successful,” she said.

The CRDA-sponsored survey revealed that area employers engage in a wide array of strategies to recruit qualified staff. More than half of the non-manufacturing companies reported employing six recruitment tools, including outsourcing some staffing and offering internships. More than half of manufacturers also recruit at community job fairs and on college campuses.

In addition, employers in 2019 offered average wage hikes of five percent – double the rate of inflation – to hourly employees, with a little less going to salaried employees. Almost all the responding employers expect to raise pay above inflation in 2020 as well.