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Robots and tech schools and pandemic business recovery in South Carolina (Oh my!)

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Scott Morgan
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South Carolina Public Radio
South Carolina's business and education sectors know that tech will be the way of the future, partially as a bulwark against future public health situations.

‘I don’t think there’s an MBA graduate out there who took a class in how to handle a pandemic.”

Bob Morgan said that on a Zoom call. And the president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce has a point. Before anyone ever heard the word “COVID,” there were likely very few business grads, if any, who had a real collegiate background in what to do if a global public health crisis shut down the entire world.

Two-and-a-half years after the free market just about caved in on itself, South Carolina is doing pretty well. But big sucker punches tend to leave us with plenty of lessons, which Morgan says the state’s business and industry sectors are now applying as if the last 30 months actually have been an MBA program.

What Morgan sees for the future of South Carolina industry involves a fair amount of investment in tech. From farms to distribution centers, he is already seeing signs of investment in automation – because “robots don’t get COVID.”

State Department of Commerce figures show about 5 and a half billion dollars in capital investment happened in South Carolina last year. With a huge chunk of that investment centering on Upstate manufacturers like BMW, Trane, and Diversified Medical Healthcare . There’s also Walmart, which is building a half-billion-dollar high-tech, partially automated distribution center in Spartanburg County.

The thing to keep in mind about automation is that robots and machines don’t eliminate work for humans, they merely shift it. But that shift does require finding new things for people to do, which is where the state’s tech schools come in.

Dr. Stacey Moore, president of York Technical College in Rock Hill, says that the jobs the school is focusing on are jobs in healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing tech – fields that need a lot of people, who need to be skilled in working with “industrial maintenance, mechatronics, machine tool technology, engineering,” and other high-skill areas. “We’ve got to be on that cutting edge,” she says.

The price for not being out in front on this, Morgan suggests, could be that South Carolina – the third-most moved-to state in the country in 2021 – could get stuck waiting for the world to ship it things it needs in the next global emergency. He says the pandemic and it’s most nagging economic long-COVID symptom, the supply chain crunch, appear to have reminded the state’s manufacturers that they can’t offshore all their manufacturing, because the day may come again that we need things in a hurry.

Morgan is optimistic about South Carolina, given, he says, that its urban centers are growing with jobs and the state’s traditional moneymakers (travel, tourism, and hospitality) continue to bounce back from early-pandemic nadirs.

What does need to be addressed, though, are the state’s rural counties, says Dr. Bryan Grady of the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. The harshest example:

“Marlboro has the highest unemployment rate in the state,” he says. “It has for some time.”

Marlboro County has had South Carolina’s worst unemployment rate, reported at 6.6 percent in May, for nine straight months.

Dr. Gentry says Marlboro’s unemployment reality is common among rural communities all over the country – where pandemic-triggered job losses are slowest to recover.

“Part of it is just sheer numbers. There are just more employers in more densely populated areas,” he says. “Smaller communities could be subject to a ‘company town’ phenomenon, where there’s one dominant employer, or there’s just simply fewer options.”

Those fewer options are exacerbating what Dr. Gentry has called a ‘hollowing out’ of South Carolina’s rural counties … as South Carolinians flock to the state’s strongly rebounding urban centers.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.