Business leaders discuss preparing students for work

By Jason Evans
Staff Reporter

PICKENS — Area schools are giving students the knowledge they need for the workforce, but more opportunities are needed to provide them with on-the-job experience.

Small business owners discussed their staffing challenges during a recent small business forum hosted by the Oconee Pickens Chamber Coalition.

“What are the big problems people have getting employees — acceptable employees — in this area?” asked Bill Caruthers with the OPCC. “When I talk to small business owners, I hear a lot of complaints about the ability to get suitable employees to pass drug tests, to show up for work every day and be clean. Is that a common problem people have in their businesses, finding people?”

Wages are a factor, Pickens Middle School teacher Susan Hilyer said.

“If you have a living wage, you get people who conform to those things,” she said. “If it’s not a living wage, then you get people who don’t. That’s the issue. The more money you can pay a person, the higher quality of individual who’ll apply for the job.”

Buddy Campbell owns a car repair business. In his industry, finding experienced workers can be a problem, he said.

“You don’t have experienced technicians,” Campbell said. “Fresh out of high school, fresh out of Greenville Tech, they have no experience. You have to work with that.”

Pickens Chamber of Commerce director Kim Smagala asked Pickens County Career and Technology Center director Ken Hitchcock to talk about how his school is addressing employer needs.

“We can probably all help each other out,” Hitchcock said. “What we’re trying to do at the career center is build more internships … to give hands-on experience. The auto tech folks that I’ve talked to, especially in the Easley area, are saying the same thing — there’s nobody out there that has that experience. Even the guys that have the auto tech associate’s degree from Greenville Tech, still, there’s not practical knowledge so they can hit the ground running.”

He said he would like to see his school to join with all the communities in Pickens “to brainstorm more internship opportunities in all areas.”

“We have a wide variety of programs, but we need to keep expanding that and offering more opportunities for students to do internships,” Hitchcock said.

One challenge for smaller companies is that it’s difficult to underwrite the cost of an internship.

“Because you will get an employee initially that’s not very productive,” Caruthers said. “Part of the bridge may be to find outside funding to help underwrite the cost of internships so it wouldn’t be the full burden on the small companies.”

Hitchcock agreed.

“We’ll even entertain non-paid internships as well, just so students can get the experience,” he said.

David Lane, president of the Clemson Chamber of Commerce, said that body utilizes many interns from Clemson University and Southern Wesleyan University.

“We don’t pay them a thing,” he said. “So why do they come to us? Because the university requires that they get some credit hours. They’re working for something. They have to do it. And as long as we give them projects and good instruction, they work very well. They need direction, they need some supervision, but for the most part you don’t have to hand-hold these people.

“If, to some degree, we did that in the high school system, I could think that could make a difference,” Lane continued. “Where these kids have to have a certain amount of experience before they graduate or before they get a particular certificate.”

“Small businesses really in this area are kind of the bread and butter for a lot of people,” Smagala said. “But I don’t think our young people get to experience that. They end up graduating and then they leave.”

Caruthers said the coalition is finding that employees lack necessary social skills. Coalition members were surprised at the results of surveying employers on employee education, he said.

“The feedback was ‘We can train people to do the technical stuff — they need to know the social skills.’” Caruthers recalled. “‘They need to know how to work in teams, they need cleanliness, they need to show up on time. The teaching of social skills required to become a successful employee seems to be a gap.”

Mentor programs are very useful, pairing experienced workers with inexperienced youth, said Wilson Perkins, the director of the Pickens Revitalization Association.

“It gives them a different perspective to look at things,” Perkins said.

Lisa Bryant with Cannon Memorial Hospital said she found interview skills classes useful in her own educational coursework.

“A lot of good information,” she said. “Do the high school and the technical schools offer those kinds of opportunities?”

Hitchcock said S.C. Works comes in and works with students on mock interviews and other job-training situations.

Caruthers said a lack of soft/social skills is also a problem for the unemployed, not only students.

Smagala said for some students, there may be a stigma attached to factory work.

“I think that they have this thought that they don’t want to go work in a factory. Their father did it, (so) they don’t want to do it. Well, it’s not like that anymore,” she said. “These are good-paying jobs with great benefits. We need to find ways to actually make those jobs attractive.”

Internships and mentor programs would be a great way to market those jobs to students.

“It’s a great avenue,” Smagala said. “Don’t turn your nose up at it.”

Tri-County Technical College is one asset area business owners have.

“I think Tri-County Tech has done a wonderful job changing their curriculum to suit businesses that have come here,” Perkins said. “I think the education around here is pretty good. I think we’re in pretty good shape. The schools are great.”