Editorial: Economy of South Carolina fueled by automotive sector

March 12, 2015

More people are employed by companies that make tires in South Carolina than in any other state in the nation.

These jobs come from major tire firms such as Michelin, Bridgestone and Continental, which make for billions of dollars in investment. Also, new plants and hundreds of millions more in investments from tire maker Trelleborg A.B. in Spartanburg and Giti Tire in Chester are set to come over the next few years.

The Palmetto State produces about 89,000 tires daily, according to Tire Business, a publication that covers the tire and automotive industries. These range from those used on cars and trucks to massive off-road tires used in mining.

South Carolina is also increasingly becoming a car-maker enclave. Volvo could reportedly soon be driving home into South Carolina, joining BMW as another major automaker in the Palmetto State. BMW opened in Greer in 1994 and now employs about 8,000 people.

S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who heads the S.C. House’s transportation budget panel, recently said that he has received requests for money for road projects and workforce training tied to a potential Volvo plant in Berkeley County. Jaguar Land Rover is also considering the state for a plant, according to several trade industry news reports.

Attracting these companies comes with developing the right economic incentive packages that entice them to invest millions of dollars in a plant and, presumably, generate hundreds of jobs, as well.

This economic growth was initially sparked by Michelin’s arrival in the state four decades ago. Michelin already has extensive operations in Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Laurens and Lexington counties, as well as possibly Oconnee County.

This cluster of tire and automotive manufacturing has undoubtedly helped the state’s climb out of the grip of the recession that sunk so many states across the nation.

In recent years, South Carolina surpassed Oklahoma in total tire production, and has gone well beyond Ohio, once considerd the rubber capital of the world. Ohio now ranks as the 11th biggest North American tire producer, with about 24,450 tires produced daily, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It’s no secret that the migration of tire production out of Ohio to southern states has been spurred by state and local government offering tax incentives and the states’ right-to-work laws that make union organizing more difficult.

Also, tire makers say they have chosen to expand in South Carolina because of an education system that fosters students to work on an increasingly high-tech factory floor. The state prepares students for more tech-savvy factory jobs through a inter-connected system of technical community colleges, including Aiken Technical College, which work directly with manufacturers to make sure students are getting skills they need for jobs that open.

Noting a need for workers, these technical colleges started up Apprenticeship Carolina in order to train young people for the workforce. This has led to collaboration with a number of companies throughout the state.

Another big factor is the German system of apprenticeships that’s been cultivated in the state by companies such as BMW. This system has been put on display locally through MTU America, which builds diesel engines at its plant in Graniteville. The program has received international recognition for its ability to create the next generation of workers for companies in South Carolina. While these programs are vital, it’s also imperative the state puts additional emphasis on higher education as well. Funding for colleges and universities in the state have continually been cut by the General Assembly, leading to tuition hikes that have made it harder to attend. That’s a pressing need that, if improved, would help boost our economy even more.

While providing the proper training and resources is important, geography is thankfully also on our side. The state certainly benefits from having ports in Charleston and Georgetown, as well as the inland port in Greer. These have undoubtedly created a logisitics sweet spot for industries, especially with so many of these companies having international ties.

South Carolina has shown it has the right recipe to spur economic growth. Continuing these efforts will help ensure our state remains economically viable and prosperous in the future.

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