South Carolina needs to prepare its workforce for manufacturing jobs.

Or so recent studies say.

But that's no surprise to Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College.

Thursday's release of "An Action Plan for Strengthening Workforce Development" in Spartanburg only serves to reinforce the mission of the largest technical college in the state. That is, training a better workforce.

And, by extension, it would seem to provide strong support for the college's latest endeavor, its proposed $79 million, 215,000-square-foot aeronautical training center.

Beyond BMW

BMW was heralded as a game changer for the state when it arrived 20 years ago. But Thornley and others think Boeing ups the ante even more.

We're far ahead of our neighbors, Georgia and North Carolina, in adding manufacturing jobs. And we want to stay that way. But the workforce development report authors, including College of Charleston professor Mark Hartley, and the leaders at the tech college know that means thinking long term about how to train the next generation of workers.

And that's why the training center makes so much sense.

South Carolina has a mismatch between skill levels and job requirements, a report from the Department of Employment and Workforce points out.

About 45 percent of jobs in the state are middle-skilled jobs, somebody with an associate degree or a certificate. But only 29 percent of our workforce is qualified for those jobs. That's a problem.

On the flip side, 38 percent of the state's jobs are low-skilled, but 45 percent of residents meet those requirements.

And even those who have lower skilled jobs aren't faring that well. Hence the "We can't survive on $7.25" rallying cry from the recent fast-food worker protest.

So it's no wonder that Trident has been able to grow for 23 consecutive terms, as Thornley proudly points out, by providing the affordable training for folks to fill those crucial middle-skilled jobs.

It fits a need that, as the study says, South Carolina needs to fill.

But you can't train people for 21st century manufacturing jobs on outdated equipment in outdated spaces.

Trident's machine tool program was using equipment from World War II.

"The program barely survived," Thornley said, until they got a $500,000 grant to modernize the lab. Now the program is full and there's a waiting list.

"All of those people will find jobs. The area is begging for those machining skills. Now we have up to date equipment so we can produce up to date employees," Thornley said.

True cost

Higher ed funding can be a sore subject here as in other states, though investing in the future workforce ought to be a high priority here and everywhere else. Thornley said the aeronautics training center has strong support from our local legislators. That's good; statewide support for this statewide endeavor would be better.

The center would require a modest tax increase for Charleston County residents, $3 for the owner of a $150,000 home. Make no mistake, the center might be based in Charleston County, but it's going to serve statewide needs.

"We're trying to step up and be visionary so we will be ready to train the next whoever comes to town," Thornley said. That sentiment is echoed by white paper author Hartley, who said the state should continue to lead the way in manufacturing.

With Trident Tech's plan, it most certainly will.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.