Small business needs a better work force

By Tim Wilkes, Guest Columnist, The State

Ask at any South Carolina business if there are sufficient numbers of qualified applicants for white-collar positions, and the answer will be yes.  But ask South Carolina small business owners if they can find homegrown, qualified or skilled technical workers to meet their needs, and the answer will be a resounding no.

This is a critical issue.  The development and success of our small businesses is largely dependent on the availability of qualified, skilled workers.  Many workers in the latter category can earn attractive salaries quickly.

Yet, in spite of the tremendous need to educate and train South Carolinians to fill the jobs that our small business community has available, the state’s attention has remained solidly focused on producing white-collar, four-year-degree workers.  But now there are new opportunities for our state.

The General Assembly will soon decide how to allocate the proceeds from the new state lottery.  One important proposal is to provide free technical college tuition.  The use of lottery proceeds for this purpose offers our state the opportunity to dramatically improve our economy, in both the short and long term, by retaining our existing work force and preparing non-university bound high school graduates for well-paying jobs as skilled workers.

However, as pointed out in a recent opinion article in The State by state Rep. Thomas Keegan, free technical college tuition will require more state funding for technical college infrastructure and personnel.  Last year, The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce took this exact message to the state Senate, encouraging that body to support free technical college tuition and the additional support funding needed for the technical school budget.

Such a financial commitment from the General Assembly this year is essential to the small business community.  Making technical skills training affordable to our citizens and small businesses is every bit as important to our economy as tuition grants and endowed chairs for our universities.  As the backbone of our economy, small businesses need this investment.

Recently, another educational effort has emerged in our high schools, which can help fill the work force needs of small business.  About two dozen of our state’s 85 school districts have adopted a Career Prep program, which is not only keeping many students from dropping out of high school but is turning these students into qualified, productive workers for small businesses.

The governor’s education task force has recommended that all of the state’s school districts adopt some form of Career Prep program to address South Carolina’s staggering 30 percent high school dropout rate.  High school dropouts are simply not qualified workers for small businesses.  They have neither the basic skills nor the work ethic to get the job done.

The Career Prep program only serves willing students in the bottom quarter of basic achievement tests.  The program is designed to help the student master English, math and job readiness courses while getting the on-the-job training at a business.

One thing that is holding Career Prep back from serving more needy high school students is that the diploma issued is not state-certified.  This situation must be remedied, for fairness both to the students who will benefit from Career Prep and to the small businesses who are eager to employ qualified workers.

With the full implementation of these two initiatives, lottery-funded free technical college tuition with supporting funding and Career Prep, the state will create the qualified and skilled workers needed for our small businesses to prosper.  The benefits for the state will be immediate and long-lasting

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