As Boeing continues ramping up production at its Charleston County manufacturing facility, the aerospace giant needs skilled workers.
Horry Georgetown Technical College hopes to help meet that demand.
Company representatives met with HGTC officials last week to discuss Boeing’s Dreamliner 787 plant, job opportunities at the site and the challenges facing a program that’s three years behind schedule.
“We’ve got to have this pipeline to Horry Georgetown Tech,” said Garth Cook, Boeing’s director of educational services. “We’ve got have people that know machines.”
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This week’s meeting was the college’s first chance to explain its advanced manufacturing program to Boeing officials. Earlier this year, the HGTC board approved a $5.8 million budget for a training facility in Conway, which is slated to be finished by the fall of 2016. Four programs will be housed in the center: advanced welding technologies, machine tool, robotics and mechatronics. The school already offers the advanced welding and machine tool programs. The others will come on line once the new building is finished. A $7.5 million training center is also planned for the school’s Georgetown campus.
“There is such a need for those skill sets now in manufacturing,” said Brandon Haselden, academic chairman of HGTC’s industrial technologies department. “The employers are complaining. There’s just not properly trained people out there for them to hire.”
Haselden said the supply of welders and machine tool specialists in the workforce continues to age and shrink as younger workers choose other careers.
“That’s got to change,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that employers and big companies like Boeing ... realize that’s a problem and they’re trying to reach out and get these kids coming out of these training facilities that have reputable programs.”
Boeing representatives relayed those concerns to HGTC leaders this week. They said they have also looked at community colleges in Florence and Aiken counties for graduates that can help them meeting their production goals.
“We’ve got a backlog right now of about 1,100 airplanes,” Cook said. “Are you going to wait 10 years to invest $220 million?”
He stressed that graduates who want to work at Boeing must arrive prepared.
“One of the things that we really have to do is continue to hire the bright minds,” he said. “A machinist needs to come in and really be turnkey, be able to really be a machinist on Day 1.”
Boeing representatives also noted that the arrival of other manufacturing companies — Volvo announced in May that it would build a plant in Berkeley County — means the demand for skilled laborers will only increase.
“We know it’s an arms race,” Cook said. “We’re not the only show in town.”
Lenny Johnson, a senior manager at Boeing’s Charleston site, echoed that sentiment.
“We need to have that pipeline full,” he said. “We need to have it ready and we need to be able to move fast.”
For local politicians, Boeing’s visit allowed them to talk up Horry County’s ability to serve as a hub for the company’s vendors.
“We have a little thing called the International Technology and Aerospace Park,” said Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus, referring to the 400-acre site in Myrtle Beach that officials have spent millions on, preparing it for industry.
Lazarus said if Boeing’s vendors choose to do business there, that would help strengthen the local economy.
“All those men and women [coming through HGTC] could stay right here in Horry County,” he said. “We would greatly appreciate it.”
HGTC President Neyle Wilson agreed.
“As I look at what’s going on in Charleston ... what we see occurring in and around that harbor will continue,” he said of the industrial growth. “And they can’t all locate and have everything they want in Charleston County.”
Wilson, who serves on the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. board, insists HGTC’s advanced manufacturing program will be a selling point for the area.
“That’s a critical thing,” he said. “[Manufacturing firms] do want tax rebates. They do want cheap water and want cheap electricity. They’re looking for land values that are as good as they can get. But the end-all discussion is if you don’t have the skills in your workforce, they’re not going to come here.”
Like Lazarus, he hopes the school’s advanced manufacturing program will help the Grand Strand attract ancillary companies.
“We’re not going to get a BMW or a Boeing probably,” he said. “But what we can get are suppliers, parts makers, section makers. ... It takes a high-precision, high skill workforce to be able to do that. That’s what these machinists can do.”
One such student is Joshua Floyd, a 29-year-old in his third semester of the machine tool technology program. Floyd said he switched career paths because of the job opportunities in manufacturing.
“I saw so many of my friends with liberal arts degrees and no jobs,” he said. “When they opened this [program], it offered me something [where] I could work with my hands as well as use my brain.”
The Murrells Inlet man attended this week’s Boeing open house in part because he wants to work in the aviation industry.
“That was one of the big reasons that I got into this field,” he said. “My father was a pilot growing up, so I’ve always loved flying and airplanes and everything else.”