New tool mixes aptitude test, data on what jobs are growing in Charleston

July 19, 2016

This is an article originally published in the Post and Courier.

The Lowcountry has added thousands of jobs since the recession, growing at a rate easily outpacing the rest of the country. And the hot industries point to a more diverse economy, as manufacturing and technology bolster an area that’s long been heavy on hospitality and the service sector.

But for all the positive signs locally, the region faces a fundamental challenge: making sure locals fill those jobs.

Business officials hope to chip away at the so-called talent gap — the divide between businesses’ needs and workers’ skills — by making it easier for students and people pondering career moves to anticipate what jobs are growing, and figure out how to land a new gig.

Their latest effort is the Charleston Regional Career Headlight, a website that fuses a short career aptitude test with data about the Lowcountry’s economy and projections of what’s to come.

So a detail-oriented high school student who has a knack for problem solving and an interest in science might see that aerospace engineers make more than $95,000 a year — and that the field is expected to grow 40 percent by 2020.

And a classmate who wants to pursue a career in medicine without paying for an advanced degree could see that Charleston’s likely to need 1,400 more registered nurses by the end of the decade.

“The economy here has changed so much over the past years,” said Mary Graham, chief advancement officer at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, one of four groups funding the site. “A lot of people — teachers, counselors, students, parents — they don’t even know these jobs are being created in the community, because it’s happened pretty rapidly.”

The tool strikes at a conundrum in Charleston’s economic development efforts — that much of the region’s job growth has been fueled by the thousands of people who have moved to the area from somewhere else.

On one hand, that’s a good sign, signaling a job market that’s strong enough to draw an average 48 new residents a day. But then, it also raises the possibility that Lowcountry natives could be left behind, missing out on high-wage jobs.

“There’s a lot of attention about people relocating to this region, and folks wanting to make sure that our home-grown talent has jobs here. And this is one of the ways that we can address that,” said Claire Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

Part of helping locals get jobs, officials say, is making sure they know what’s out there. The issue was raised in a 2014 report the chamber commissioned to assess the region’s employment needs, saying that the “general lack of understanding” of employment opportunities and the education they require was “a substantial gap in the community.”

The Career Headlight tool is a relatively new way of approaching that divide. The service has been used for about two years in Charlotte, and the Charleston metro will be the second to use it, said Chris Engle, vice president of Avalanche Consulting, which wrote the chamber report and developed the Headlight program.

Officials say they plan to push the Headlight tool through programs like the chamber’s Career Academies initiative and pitch it to school guidance counselors. And they’re working on a similar tool to help college students find internships in the area, which will launch in the fall.

The idea, Engle says, is to dispel incorrect notions about the job market so that students entering the workforce and workers thinking about a career change go down the right paths. Before they invest in a four-year degree, for example, they ought to make sure it’s necessary and that a job will be waiting on the other side.

“Like any dynamic community, the economy’s changing so quickly that people have incomplete information or may be working on a career choice based on information from five or 10 years ago,” Engle said. “This is a way for us to keep very current information about the future of the economy and what’s growing now.”

Read this article in the Post and Courier.