For 62 hours across three weeks, they endured classroom instruction and hands-on performance in general manufacturing skills and safety training for such positions.
Now, 32 Berkeley County residents boast completion of a unique certificate equivalent to a year’s worth of manufacturing experience in an industry-rich county and state in need of filling its manufacturing workforce. The program also includes a certificate from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“It does my heart good to see the graduates in this program,” said St. Stephen Mayor John Rivers. “I hope you all have great success.”
Called ManuFirst SC, the program was first established in the state in Berkeley County, after Volvo Cars Inc. located its North American headquarters in Ridgeville. The program is an expedited and condensed manufacturing course to better train—and do it quickly—the local workforce to not only increase area job opportunities but also meet a need of local manufacturing plants seeking skilled workers. While its free to qualified residents, the program requires 100 percent attendance.
“We sat with Volvo and some long hours when they came to Berkeley County because they said they wanted to do something for Berkeley County; and they came up with this course,” said LaRone Murphy, over business consultant services with Trident Technical College.
Kristen Lanier, the county's workforce development manager, explained further.
“This was something that Berkeley County did for our residents,” she said. “When we bring in these new companies, it means a lot to our residents to have the opportunity to fill these jobs.”
Trident Tech, the state's largest tech school, and Berkeley County School District also partnered with Berkeley County Economic Development Department on the ManuFirst SC program. BCSD even offers the program to seniors at five of its eight high schools.
“We need to tell the stories of what’s available here, what opportunities are available here, what companies are available here,” said Sonya Addison-Stewart, with the Career and Technical Education Department for BCSD. “Our students need to hear that, and they also need to hear how to get to that next step. It is not all the time going straight to a four-year college. It could be doing an opportunity like this (course) that leads to another opportunity.”
David Sweat, a Timberland High teacher who served as one of two instructors for the ManuFirst SC course, agreed that college isn’t the only path to a career and expressed his passion for showing students different options.
“College isn’t for everybody, but if I can give them something to get their foot in the door,” he said. “This (course) is just an extra push.”
But the course isn’t the end. It’s merely just the beginning, according to Addison-Stewart, who celebrated graduates but also urged them to continue striving for more.
“I applaud you…but don’t just stop here,” she said. “Challenge yourself to always grow; learning is lifelong.”
Barry Jurs, economic development director for the county, echoed the BCSD official’s thoughts.
“It’s a long journey to get from one end to the other; life is a long journey; a career is a long journey,” he said. “Getting that certification is the start of a new path; it’s the first step on one that leads somewhere. …We’ve got new opportunity in Berkeley County; we have a lot of companies here looking for good people that they’d like to have come into their employ, not to just to work for them; they’re asking you to come and be part of a career opportunity—a life-changing moment.”
While Trident Tech has hosted the ManuFirst SC program since its inception in 2017, the most recent class—the eighth one in the county—was conducted in St. Stephen, offering a closer option to home for residents on the county’s northern end.
And after getting their golden certificates, graduates didn’t waste any time networking with local industry representatives—several local ones on hand for a mini job fair the county conducted after the ceremony.
“They’re looking for folks that have these skills that you’ve acquired,” Lanier told graduates.
And industry experts agreed.
“We’re always looking to expand our workforce,” said Kevin Elliott, assistant plant manager for Feralloy Corporation—a Huger-based company that produces steel coils.
Other job fair participants included DAK America, Thorne Research, Ready SC and Acutec Industries LLC.
“We are committed to the community,” said Dan Bras, general manager for the Acutec plant in St. Stephen.
According to Bras, the local plant—the company’s only other U.S. site outside its Pennsylvania headquarters—is looking to grow its South Carolina workforce by more than a dozen and needs skilled machinists to build parts for the aerospace sector.
But new graduates Phillip Pittman and Andre Myers have their sights set on the Mercedes-Benz plant in North Charleston—where Murphy said there’s also a need for additional workers.
“I was at Mercedes this morning, working with some more training to bring some more people there,” he told graduates. “So this is growing really fast; we have other companies coming on board.”
According to Pittman, a former chef and worker for years in the local restaurant industry, it was his mom who first told him about the course, which he applauded for the amount of manufacturing knowledge he acquired in such a short amount of time.
“It was incredible for packing in four hours a day, four days a week,” Pittman said. “Our brains were full. So literally every day we learned something new.”
Myers said his background working on cars at local paint and body shops prepared him for a potential career with Mercedes. He explained his motivation for taking the course was his desire “for something better in life,” including employment he could turn into a career and had accompanying benefits that could provide for him and his wife.
Since the start of the ManuFirst SC program, other counties across the region and state have adopted similar ones. At least 400 have graduated from the Berkeley County program alone, with more to come.
“Tell your friends; tell other people,” Murphy said. “We’re looking at doing this (class) more. We’ve been given some extra money. …We want to help as many people as we can.”