Having a skilled workforce for now and the future is a challenge for many communities across the country, according to about every business/industrial official or economist that you would want to speak with. The workforce issue has been raised locally recently by area industrial leaders and concerns about classroom instruction and academic achievement in Sumter School District amidst its current financial difficulties.

Many, including Brian Rauschenbach, economic development project manager with the Sumter Economic Development Board, say the workforce challenges exist today because of rapidly changing technology in business and industry that require a different skill-set on the part of workers and a different level of critical thinking than traditional manufacturing jobs 20 years ago. Those jobs may have required a high school diploma, or even less for entry, but they now often require technical skills attained through post-secondary education beyond the high school level.

Rauschenbach said filling those high-tech positions can sometimes be difficult and challenging locally, but the issue exists across the state and nation.

Since the issue has been raised locally this spring, a Sumter group has even started a web site, www.citizensforgreatschools.com, with the stated mission to educate, energize and mobilize the community to attain a higher academic standard for every student and to create great schools within Sumter County. According to its web site, the group plans to outreach through social media and public events to energize every citizen into action.

Will its efforts solve the problems and challenges related to workforce in Sumter County? We will have to wait and see.

What are some best practices out there to help solve the workforce challenge?

Many say when businesses and industries partner with schools to engage students in high-demand careers, it proves to be a win-win and can spark an interest in students. Also, with increasing skill requirements, bridge programs linking high school to post-secondary education are critical. The school district has established connections with Central Carolina Technical College and University of South Carolina Sumter that offer two years of free tuition to graduating high school seniors who meet certain academic requirements. So, the college route is somewhat covered.

But, students still need the spark from business and industry involvement in the schools, and that can sometimes prove difficult.

Rauschenbach says there are many opportunities for business and industry leaders to become engaged with the public school system and also the private schools. Rauschenbach previously was a youth apprenticeship consultant with Apprenticeship Carolina, where he was instrumental in the development of youth apprenticeship programs across the state.

He says businesses participating in career days, mentoring students and showcasing careers in the classroom with regular visitation to the schools – even elementary schools – is important.

“Start planting those seeds early,” Rauschenbach said. “But, if you plant a seed and you never water it, it won’t grow.” So, he says leaders need to nurture those relationships throughout their high school years.

He said that can impact students for when they are choosing their individual career tracks in the eighth grade for high school with their guidance counselor. A student could decide he or she is interested in working in manufacturing with robots and choose the career and technology center route in the school district.

In the career center route in the district, 11th and 12th graders at the three district high schools spend a half a day taking classes at their home school – Sumter High, Lakewood or Crestwood – and then a half a day at the career center.

The best local models for business and industry working with schools occurs with the career center because of the fit of students in career tracks of interest and hands-on learning at the center. Before they graduate, students in many of the center’s programs have the opportunity for work-based learning opportunities.

According to Sumter Career and Technology Center Assistant Principal Jill Winter, popular programs that offer those outside learning opportunities include welding, introduction to manufacturing, automotive technology and culinary arts. Sometimes, those experiences can lead to full-time jobs after graduation.

Possibly the best linkage with industry that the career center has is its introduction to manufacturing program with Continental Tire in Sumter. The school actually has had a registered apprenticeship program with Continental for two years now.

According to Winter, seniors can apply and interview for the Continental apprenticeship. If hired on by the tire manufacturer through a competitive interview process, students can work part-time for 16 hours per work at the plant during their final semester of high school. The first year of the apprenticeship program, seven seniors were hired as apprentices. This past year, six students were hired as apprentices. Winter said to date, two students have been hired full time by Continental upon high school graduation.

Given the technical demands in the field, many local manufacturers today encourage post-secondary technical training at CCTC. Even Continental encourages it for the apprentices it has hired, according to Winter. The college now offers a Central Carolina Scholars program to provide two years of tuition-free college for high school students who meet certain levels of criteria. According to the college, 116 students are currently enrolled in the program from Sumter County.

Rauschenbach says the opportunities are there, but the pipeline needs to be filled.

“In many cases, plants want more than a high school diploma,” Rauschenbach said. “Most studies say you need some type of post-secondary training or certificate and some work experience. So, when you are able to combine those two together, you can really get on that solid pathway for being successful.”

Rauschenbach says the keys to success exist locally.

“It’s having the tools to train the next generation of workforce as well as able to grow your own from within,” Rauschenbach said. “The bottom line is the future workforce is in the K-12 system right now. The tools are here and the timing is right. There are solutions in place to help individuals get the training.”