Walking along the wide, tree-lined Main Street of downtown Greenville, S.C., it is hard to imagine that just 40 years ago the same path was deserted. Dozens of locally owned restaurants, luxury condos and hotels, and bustling shops belie the city’s history. The city is now a hub of advanced manufacturing, engineering, information technology, and other high-growth industries.

Like many other former mill towns across the South, Greenville’s economy centered on textile manufacturing for much of the 20th century. But unlike many others, Greenville successfully diversified its economy before globalization and technological innovation sent many jobs overseas. In the early 1970s, Michelin invested in the Upstate region, followed by several other automotive manufacturers, and by the mid-1990s, BMW had established a major auto assembly plant in the area. But despite Greenville’s strong economy and national recognition, not all of the city’s residents have benefitted from its prosperity. “A young person’s economic prospects should not be determined by his or her zip code,” says John Concklin, program investment manager at United Way of Greenville County. “Unfortunately, in the area known as the ‘White Horse Corridor,’ prospects for a successful future are tough—32 percent of households live in poverty; 66 percent have only a high school diploma or less; unemployment is greater than 25 percent in some sections; and the city’s lowest performing high schools are found here.” In many of these neighborhoods, students lack the work experiences and information they need to make decisions about how to prepare and compete for family-sustaining jobs. For some students, particularly those living in neighborhoods with high unemployment, there is mistrust of manufacturing jobs, since their parents were laid off when textile jobs were outsourced.

While some young people are skeptical of the labor market, some employers are skeptical of the labor force. In 2007, a study found that two-thirds of Greenville-area companies could not find enough qualified entry-level workers, skilled-production workers, as well as engineering and IT professionals. To solve this problem in the short term, many businesses are relying on young transplants, who are attracted by the density of well-paying jobs and a vibrant downtown. But civic leaders know that talent recruitment isn’t a viable long-term solution for businesses or the community, though that is sometimes a hard case to make. Traci Wickett, president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Cameron County in Brownsville, TX, believes that helping employers understand the potential in the local labor force is always worth the effort. She explains here:

 

Like Wickett’s efforts in Brownsville, organizations in Greenville are taking the lead on infusing work exposure and experience that is beneficial for both young people and employers. In 2012, the Chamber of Commerce created an Education & Workforce Committee to facilitate integration between business and the school system. By 2014, the Chamber was a part of the schools’ strategic planning process and participated in the search process for the current superintendent. The Chamber’s approach to educational involvement is wide-ranging, supporting efforts from early childhood to higher education. The Greenville business community has been supportive of the development of a successful STEM elementary school as well as a STEAM middle school. To complete the K-12 educational preparation for these types of careers, the Chamber has been very supportive of the NEXT High School, slated to open in the fall of 2016. Integral to all of these educational efforts are strong business involvement and project-based learning. The Chamber is committed to providing business linkages that give students exposure and the skills needed to succeed in the area’s technical, high-growth industries. Hank Hyatt, vice president for economic development at the Greenville Chamber says “You can’t wait until high school to expose kids to career opportunities, so we are helping foster partnerships with middle schools to bring business leaders into seventh grade classrooms.” Hyatt acknowledges that providing the number of internships or other work experiences that Greenville students need is a challenge, but he affirmed the Chamber and the business community’s commitment to building a strong educational and work pipeline for students, particularly those who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. As John Concklin says, “The key to our success hinges on engaging the right people, giving people the space to say what isn’t working, and developing coherent strategies. To solve these problems, we have to work together.”

This post is adapted from a profile written by Beth Caldwell. You can read the full profile and to learn more about Greenville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.