COLUMBIA, S.C.—A state's infrastructure is one of the most important factors manufacturer's consider when deciding where to set up shop.
Infrastructure is not just freeways, railways, shipping, air and general transportation logistics. Having a strong education system also is critical.
South Carolina's technical college system is one of its biggest selling points. Two programs created through the system are integral in both training new employees and developing prospective talent.
ReadySC is dedicated to training work forces for companies looking to establish a presence in South Carolina, customizing a training program catered to each company at no cost. It was carved out by the state within its 16 technical colleges and has been in existence for more than 50 years, according to Susan Pretulak, vice president of economic development at the S.C. Technical College System.
Eight of the colleges offer a program called Mechatronics, which consists of 15 certificate programs and an associate's degree. The program was adapted when five schools sought to update the existing Industrial Maintenance and Technology program. Hope Rivers—vice president for academic and student affairs, S.C. Technical College System—said other technical colleges still offer the Industrial Maintenance and Technology program.
Mechatronics is growing. Rivers said in 2008, total enrollment in the degree and certificate programs was 95. In the fall of 2014, 423 students were enrolled.
“It speaks volumes to what's happening in South Carolina's manufacturing industry as a whole,” she said.
Michelin, Bridgestone Corp. and Continental A.G. have supported and taken advantage of these programs.
“Our philosophy is if a company will come here and invest its capital in South Carolina, we'll invest ours in our people and prepare them to be ready to work in their plant,” said Bobby Hitt, South Carolina's secretary of commerce. “It's been a very strong formula, and our neighboring states keep us on our toes.”
He estimates that in the last six years, the state has helped train about 5,000 tire employees through ReadySC.
“They locate people that want to go to work, and they then work closely with the company to develop a training program to develop these people,” said Will Williams, president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of South Carolina—which covers Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda Counties.
“ReadySC gives them a chance to gain some skills and knowledge, but gives the company a chance to evaluate these people in terms of their attendance, their attitude and their work ethic.”
Five core services
Pretulak said ReadySC provides five core services: recruitment; curriculum development; access to instructors; training space; and project management.
“It's had from its inception the exact same mission, and that's to either help companies who are locating to South Carolina for the first time or are expanding to recruit and train a production work force,” Pretulak said.
ReadySC can run advertising for its clients and operates an online application system that can be used by potential employees on the front side and by the company on the back for screening, she said.
The program's team of training managers can develop customized training or videos for the firm utilizing the client's choice of curriculum. Pretulak said ReadySC can translate materials to English for foreign firms.
It partners with the technical colleges to provide instructors as well as through its vendors, consultants, its staff and clients. She said ReadySC will send its staff across the globe to learn manufacturing processes.
“We rely heavily on subject matter experts from our partner companies because their equipment is very, very specific,” Pretulak said. “Their processes are very propriety.”
In establishing a program, she said ReadySC will visit the facility closest to the one that is going to be established in South Carolina. The team meets with the people in charge of training for the new facility, then talk with the people on the floor doing the work. It examines the training program already in place to understand the regulations of the industry and how the company addresses them.
“Even before we started construction, right after the announcement, they had a team that went to our Mount Vernon (Ill.) facility and benchmarked off of how they assess, source and train new employees,” said Ashton Elmore, training manager at Continental's Sumter plant. “It started about two years before we were making tires.”
Finally, it looks at hiring timelines and returns to South Carolina to identify what is needed in terms of training space—which ReadySC can provide ranging from a simple laptop and projector to comprehensive lab space—and how it's going to recruit for the client.
Pretulak said each client is given one point of contact for ReadySC.
“We try to make it as simple as we can for our companies because when you're in start-up or expansion mode, there is so much going on that companies like to just make one phone call, not seven or eight,” Pretulak said. “We take responsibility for essentially all of the recruitment and training. We're the focal point for how all that occurs.”
Pretulak said ReadySC is very protective and sensitive to requirements for the industry and firm's proprietary processes. It has provided training programs for passenger and truck tires for a long time, and with Bridgestone's addition of off-road-radials, the program is learning a new and intense process.
“We are really a state that makes things,” Pretulak said. “We want to stay as close to the forefront of manufacturing as we can.”
Colleges develop talent
Mechatronics' 15 certificates include various degrees of certification—ranging from basic, to intermediate and advanced. All eight colleges offer multiple levels of certification, but Rivers said only two of the eight colleges—Piedmont and Greenville—offer the full associate degree in applied science with a major in Mechatronics, which consists of 72 hours.
The Mechatronics curriculum consists of robotics, electricity and automation, programmable logic controllers, quality concepts and fluid power systems. Rivers said colleges offer day and evening tracks.
Rivers said the program has received strong support from tire manufacturers, which includes Continental developing an apprenticeship program through Central Carolina Technical College.
“We like to be an open door in the sense that those kids are looking for careers in manufacturing,” Elmore said. “We would like for them to see our facility and see the work environment and see how technologically savvy things are and how advanced things are. That way they can see how what they're learning in the classroom can be applied to a job one day.”
Rivers said Bridgestone and Michelin offer tech scholars programs for students participating at the various colleges. Michelin's scholarship covers tuition, fees, books, competitive pay and part-time work with the firm, according to Rivers.
The scholarship recipient must be a full-time student majoring in Mechatronics or a related program, maintain a 2.5 GPA and be able to work 20 hours a week at Michelin during the program.
“All of the colleges that have the Mechatronics program, and even those that are still offering the Industrial Maintenance Technology program, would say they have a very good relationship with the manufacturers in their area, both tire and otherwise,” Rivers said.