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Educators say emphasis on aerospace needed to fill workforce shortages

Human Resources
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A recent analysis of the available jobs versus available graduates shows the Charleston region will not have enough workers for available jobs in aerospace, like some of those at Boeing South Carolina. (Photo/Kim McManus)

South Carolina’s aerospace industry needs more students interested in the field.

That was one of the main messages coming out of this year’s S.C. Aerospace Conference and Expo in Columbia.

With Boeing South Carolina’s growing Dreamliner campus in North Charleston and a strong base of aerospace suppliers and manufacturers throughout the state — companies are expected to come up short when seeking skilled workers.

Joan Robinson-Berry, the new vice president and general manager at Boeing S.C., said a statewide approach is needed to interest students in aerospace and STEM fields earlier on in their education. (Photo/Kim McManus)The Lowcountry is already not producing enough graduates for those available jobs, meaning companies are pulling workers from out of market and out of state, according to an analysis from Avalanche Consulting. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Regional Development Alliance hired the firm to study the disparity between area graduates and projected, available jobs.

The 2016 Talent Demand Study shows no Lowcountry graduates are available for 54 aerospace engineering jobs or for 102 mechanical engineering jobs each year over the next decade. For the 135 industrial engineering jobs open each year, only 23 degrees are being awarded.

For the 397 jobs available annually for aerospace assemblers, technicians and mechanics, only 117 degrees are awarded in the region each year.

“We are expected to experience a shortage of engineers,” Anita Zucker, CEO of North Charleston-based The InterTech Group, said during the conference. “We also need general assemblers, fabricators and machinists, all of which will be vastly undersupplied by local graduates.”

Zucker — also the chairwoman of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, a group focused on improving educational outcomes for area students — said youth apprenticeships and targeted coursework help to address the gaps.

One such example is through the Charleston Chamber’s Career Academies, which are career-themed schools within high schools. This school year, 10 of the 62 academies will focus on science, technology, engineering and math subjects and include an aerospace course.

Engineering programs at colleges and universities across the state help address some of the engineering shortages, as does USC’s Ronald E. McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research, which focuses on aerospace research and education.

But Hossein Haj-Hariri, the dean of USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, said state universities need to create a designated aerospace major to attract and retain top talent.

‘Inspire the next generation’

Ann Marie Stieritz, president and CEO of the S.C. Council on Competitiveness, said her group wants to see an aerospace curriculum in K-12 schools; a career awareness campaign for students, teachers, parents and guidance
counselors; and better connections between S.C. teachers and aerospace company leaders.

Joan Robinson-Berry, the new vice president and general manager at Boeing S.C., said a statewide approach is needed to interest students in aerospace and STEM fields earlier on in their education.

She said that K-12 schools and higher education institutions need to offer students hands-on, fun and recurring experiences through clubs, organizations, coding camps and curricula, and that industry should back those efforts.

“We can’t just embrace a program on a Saturday,” Robinson-Berry said. “It involves exposing them to the art of technology fields by getting them involved. Not just exposing them to one-day career fairs, but actually creating clubs and opportunities. We have to think about the bigger picture.”

Katie Plain, a Boeing S.C. employee who is also working toward a master’s in aerospace engineering from USC, said interactive projects initially interested her in the field.

“Sitting in a classroom talking about engineering is one thing. It’s a lot of theory. Some application, but not a lot,” Plain said. “But the hands-on experience is the most important part of learning, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I decided to pursue engineering.”

Boeing’s Dreamlearners program is an initiative designed to teach kids about aviation. To date, around 200,000 S.C. students have spent the day at Boeing as part of the program. Robinson-Berry said such events can spark an interest, but more sustained efforts are needed.

“Think about it. If you want to be the best track runner, you run all the time, you have practices,” Robinson-Berry said. “So how do we do the same thing and create the same mentality for our pipeline? ... We need to make math friendly and make science friendly. We need to inspire the next generation to want to be a part of our industry.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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