Workers Trained To Order At State Expense

With some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, South Carolina has a reputation for an unskilled and poorly trained work force. Yet in recent years, the state has managed to turn its oft-maligned educational system into a prime weapon in the battle for foreign investment, enabling the state to attract major manufacturers such as BMW.

The secret of its success is the Special Schools program. Started in 1961 to stem the flight of the state's young laborers, the program now custom-trains production workers for incoming foreign and domestic manufacturers. What workers lack in technical skills or book learning, South Carolina will supplement with extensive training programs--at no cost to the employer. "We will train your people to your specifications at the state's expense," says Robert W. Taylor, associate director of the Board for Technical & Comprehensive Education.

HOT CONCEPT. Special Schools serves as a one-stop shop for worker development. First, the program's curriculum unit works with the employer to create training courses and develop work manuals. Then, a staff of instructors, often drawn from the company's own managers, are hired by the state to run the classes at one of the state's 16 technical colleges or at the plant site.

Special Schools provides math and reading instruction, plus training in such areas as conflict resolution, effective communication--even statistical process management. Overall, some 6,500 workers at over 120 plants in South Carolina participated last fiscal year, costing the state about $6.4 million. This year's budget: $10.8 million.

The program has been a lure for German companies that are used to a highly trained work force at home. For companies such as BMW, Special Schools does everything from running help-wanted ads to screening workers based on factors such as hand-eye coordination and openness to working as part of a team. "We guarantee BMW they'll have five qualified candidates for each job opening," says Taylor.

The companies seem satisfied. "With the help of the Special School system, the people here are able to accomplish the work," says George Kubina, manager for the German-owned Helima Helvetion International plant in Duncan, S.C. The plant, which makes radiator tubing, opened last November, and now has 72 workers who went through the program.

While the Special Schools program is not cheap, the payoff is huge. Other states must ask not whether they can afford to follow South Carolina's example, but whether they can afford not to.

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