'Soft skills' a must for manufacturing jobs, Rock Hill summit attendees told

Bobby Hitt
Bobby Hitt

To develop South Carolina’s workforce of the future the operative word is “cool,” says state Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt.

Children need to understand that “it’s cool to make things,” in the advanced manufacturing plants that rely on high-technology in the state, and at the firms being recruited, Hitt said.

“Kids need to understand that we have cool jobs,” Hitt stressed Thursday to regional business leaders and educators at the Workforce Development Summit held by the Catawba Regional Education Center in Rock Hill.

Getting more people interested in manufacturing jobs is key, Hitt said, and it’s his goal to increase the number of manufacturers from 35 percent in the state to “above 50 percent.”

The employers in the room agreed with Hitt’s assertion that South Carolina doesn’t have to have a workforce on standby. The state has proven it has the capacity to train a workforce as needed, Hitt said. He pointed to the more than 5,000 tire workers that have been trained in the state and more to come with the opening of the Giti Tire plant in Richburg.

Yet even the Giti representative at the summit agreed with other business leaders that more than technical training is needed.

Potential Giti employees need to have what employers call “soft skills” – a good work ethic, being dependable, coming to work on time, working well independently and with others, and, in general, being professional.

“You can have work skills all day long, but we can’t hire you without the soft skills,” said Kelly Shumaker, a human resources director for Giti Tire.

It will be 17 months before the first tire is made at Giti’s Richburg plant. Initial hiring at the plant is expected to be about 650 workers. Giti expects to be advertising for some jobs as early as the end of the year, Shumaker said.

Kristen Blanchard, vice president of external corporate affairs at Nutramax in Lancaster, said the company sometimes struggles to find employees with the necessary soft skills.

The company, which makes nutritional supplements for dogs, cats, and horses, employs about 250 people, but is looking to add another 125 over the next five years. The jobs are in a variety of positions, she said.

“Attention to details is important,” Blanchard said because the manufacturing process is automated. Employees also need the soft skills to “come to work on time and to work through conflicts,” she said.

Greg Rutherford, president of York Technical College, and Kelly Pew, superintendent of Rock Hill schools, agreed that part of the soft skills problem is societal.

Rutherford said he tries to speak to every person on campus “that comes within five feet of me.” Many of the students, he said, won’t make eye contact with him, Rutherford said.

York Tech’s solution, Rutherford said, is “we don’t allow students to be passive. We require them to stand and deliver. It makes them uncomfortable.”

York Tech also has changed some of its policies. The class absence policy was changed from 20 percent to 10 percent and the school no longer accepts late registration.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066