Greenville / South Carolina

In tackling the complex issues that some of Greenville’s youth face—geographic isolation, intergenerational poverty, fragmented pathways from education to employment—there is a commitment to public-private partnerships and a long-term bold vision, carefully shepherded by a string of local leaders.

Greenville / South Carolina

by Beth Caldwell

The Place: a county of nearly half a million people and a hub of high-growth industries, including advanced manufacturing, engineering, and information technology

The Challenge: reaching youth who are on the fringes of the mainstream economy with the information and work experience to participate in and sustain that economy

Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: organizations with the influence and inclination to convene individuals across sectors and communities to identify problems and devise solutions

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.

History and Context

Like many other former milltowns 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. The story of Greenville’s revitalization and economic growth is praised. City leaders frequently host civic and governmental groups from around the country, offering advice to communities that dream of similar success. In 2014, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, a national partnership of regional collaboratives focused on workforce innovations, recognized Greenville for its exemplary workforce development partnership, which has been particularly successful in connecting older, dislocated workers to jobs.

Despite Greenville’s strong economy and national recognition, not all of the city’s residents have benefited 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.”

“Greenville is filled with prosperity, but there is a divide at White Horse Road where that same level of prosperity just does not exist,” says Tish Young McCutchen, vice president of organizational planning and public affairs at United Way of Greenville County.

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. “It’s really hard to get the message across to youth how good the options are in manufacturing,” says John Baker, executive director of Greenville Works. For some students, particularly those living in neighborhoods with high unemployment, there also is mistrust of manufacturing jobs, since their parents were laid off when textile jobs were outsourced. “They have old perceptions of manufacturing—that it’s dirty and nasty. They need to see other people like themselves doing these jobs and helping them to understand the strong possibilities in this industry,” says Becky Godbey, vice president of career development services at Goodwill Industries of the Upstate/Midlands South Carolina.

“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.”

The Challenge

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. “All the incentives in the world will not make a company settle where there isn’t a strong labor force,” says Nancy Whitworth, director of economic development for the City of Greenville. If Greenville doesn’t develop more effective strategies to connect its own young adults to its industries, the city won’t retain its businesses. And many youth growing up in areas of high unemployment and attending lower-performing schools will likely remain on the fringes of the mainstream economy and in cycles of intergenerational poverty. “We have a beautiful downtown and tremendous opportunity in the east side of the county,” says Martin Livingston, executive director of the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority. “But we don’t always want to talk about the fact that we are leaving a big corridor out of that prosperity.”

The Analysis and Strategy

When asked how Greenville has been so successful in transforming itself, many leaders describe the city’s long history of public-private partnerships and a long-term commitment to a bold vision, carefully shepherded by a string of local leaders. In tackling the complex issues that some of Greenville’s youth face—geographic isolation, intergenerational poverty, fragmented pathways from education to employment—there is a commitment to applying a similar approach. Many individuals and organizations from the public, private, and philanthropic sectors have come together in partnerships focused on a number of these issues, and United Way of Greenville is often the convening backbone organization. In 2003, United Way began working on a community impact agenda; in 2008, it embarked on a bold project to create strategies for three new focus areas: school readiness, high school graduation, and financial stability. “We worked with the broad community—moms and dads, experts in community development, business leaders—to assess what we were already doing and what we needed to do to address each issue,” says Phyllis Martin, vice president for strategy and investment at United Way. From this process emerged three “road maps”—one for each of United Way’s priority issues—that describe the goals, benchmarks, and strategies for each pathway. Together, these three strategies represent some of Greenville’s major bets on building an infrastructure of opportunity—the human capital development, employment generation, and social and financial supports necessary to help young people succeed—for youth and young adults, as well as those in early childhood.

Along the education-to-career pathway, United Way has made an intensive investment in the middle grades. “Middle schools are often the poorest performing piece of the K-12 education continuum, and success in those years is crucial for students’ completion of high school and transition into postsecondary education,” says Ted Hendry, president of United Way. “In collaboration with the school district, we’ve identified the middle schools that need the most intensive support, which are all in the White Horse Corridor.” These investments include implementation of a formal early warning system to identify struggling students before they drop out. United Way and Communities in Schools are building a network of public and private after-school programs to ensure providers are delivering high-quality programs with national best practices and reaching kids who are most in need.

“We have a beautiful downtown and tremendous opportunity in the east side of the county,” says Martin Livingston, executive director of the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority. “But we don’t always want to talk about the fact that we are leaving a big corridor out of that prosperity.”

Working with students and families in one part of the city represents United Way’s shift toward place-based work. “By focusing on a specific geography and spending a lot of time there, we are hoping to learn what the people living in a specific community really care about and need. We want to work collectively to implement strategies that address multiple problems in a coordinated way with the right supports at the right time. Then we can see what is working and what isn’t before we attempt to scale the strategies in other places,” says Martin.

While United Way is focusing on middle grades success and postsecondary readiness, other organizations are taking the lead on infusing work exposure and experience throughout the education-to-career pipeline. In 2012, the Chamber of Commerce created an Education & Workforce Committee to facilitate integration between business and the school system. Two years later, the Chamber is now 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 STEAM5 middle school, set to open this fall. 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.

Through a partnership with Furman University’s Riley Institute and some of the area’s biggest employers, including Michelin, Greenville Health System, and BMW, the Chamber has tried to address the misinformation about advanced manufacturing and other technical jobs. “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,” says Hank Hyatt, vice president for economic development at the Greenville Chamber. “Dream Connectors and Principal for a Day are both getting traction in our community.” Students and their teachers also take trips to the shop floors to experience Greenville’s new economy in person.

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. “Our philosophy has been how can we engage business resources, broadly defined, to make the education system work better.”

With so many strategies being deployed in specific schools or neighborhoods by different organizations and partners, a backbone organization is essential for coordinating efforts, assessing what is working and what is not, and developing plans to scale effective practices. “We know United Way cannot do or fund all of the work that is under way or that we need in Greenville,” says Martin. “What we can do is provide a framework for long-term change.” But getting people to understand that long-term change will require long-term investment, particularly in the White Horse Corridor, is a challenge. “We can’t fall into the typical trap of committing to something for three to five years before moving on to the ‘next big thing.’ We are trying to figure out how we convene people to commit to an approach for a longer period of time and in the context of a smaller geographic area,” says Martin.

But United Way also thinks it is uniquely positioned to facilitate these conversations. “Getting business leaders and community members in the same room, at the same table, is critical” Concklin says. “It will take much more than just money to solve problems like a 75 percent high school graduation rate. 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.”

questions and next steps

This kind of collaborative work is difficult, particularly in a community that still suffers from racial division and a widening gap between the rich and poor. Phyllis Martin described the persistent achievement gap between young African-American men and other demographic groups. Sean Dogan, pastor at Long Branch Baptist Church, spoke to the long-lasting mistrust between members of the African-American community, who have disproportionately been left in poverty, and the leadership of the city. “We have a lot of people talking about poverty—but it’s not necessarily with the people who are living it,” says Pastor Dogan. “We’re having this conversation about the lowest quartile rather than talking to or with the people in it. For whatever reason, lived experience isn’t qualified experience at some of our conversations.”

Leaders at United Way shared this view. Although public-private institutional partnerships put Greenville on the map, there is a growing sense that reducing growing inequality will rely just as much on community engagement as CEO buy-in. “As we’ve started working at the neighborhood level, we’ve learned that we have to do more than blanket a neighborhood with programs and supports without engaging its residents in the solution,” says Tish Young McCutchen. “After all, the people living in the neighborhood are even more invested in outcomes than we are—because it’s their lives and futures. We want them to be at the table from the beginning, helping to create the solution.”

Despite these challenges, many leaders are committed to working over the long-term to create what United Way calls a cycle of success. “We’ve got to convince people that poverty is not a moment in time,” says Concklin of United Way.

“This is such a different conversation to have because of how we have been trained to think about poverty,” Martin added. “These issues are complex, and we have to understand how long it will take to address them. We must have strength, leadership, desire, and courage to realize there is no quick fix.”

Pastor Sean Dogan echoes these sentiments. “It’s hard to see Greenville as this glorious, beautiful place until entry-level workers at the hospital can afford to get the health care services they need. That’s the same for other industries. In Greenville, we can really have the American Dream.”

“Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation” takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds. Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

Read more of the report.