Union County Addresses Employment Challenges

One of the challenges of drawing business to a county that lies between more populous counties with larger cities is making sure that there is a skilled workforce to meet the staffing needs of local industry, but Union County officials are meeting that challenge head on with ongoing workforce summits initiated by Frank Hart, Union County Supervisor.

With a population of just under 30,000 people, Union County isn’t the smallest county in the state, but it’s a fraction of the size of two of its neighboring counties, Spartanburg and York. An estimated 2,000 residents drive outside of the county every day to work—a significant number of workers out of about 12,000 households (as of the 2010 census). So keeping workers, training workers, and making sure that able-bodied workers are employable are big concerns. 

Individuals from a wide range of agencies and organizations in the county—representatives from the public school system, DSS, local industry, vocational rehab, the United Way, SC Works, Spartanburg Community College–Union Campus (formerly the Advanced Technology Center), and other entities—were asked to join in the effort last spring. According to the initial summit invitation, the group was being convened for a specific purpose:  “Many different institutions and agencies play a key role in the workforce development process. The purpose of this summit will be to discuss and identify ways in which we can improve collaboration, cooperation, and coordination of workforce development efforts in Union County.”

“These entities weren’t as well connected as they could be,” says Hart. “We wanted to improve sharing of information and promote cooperation among them.”

To ensure that the cooperative efforts run smoothly, the county hired Katherine Pendergrass, who had formerly worked in various capacities for SC Works, as the Union County Workforce Development Director. In that role, she is the point person between the different entities. The goal of having that dedicated position, Hart says, is “to reach the right people, bring in the right partners, and hand things off to the right people when needed.”

Over the last year there have been quarterly meetings of the larger group with smaller break-out committee meetings in between. There are three committees of four or five people each that are tasked with addressing strategic systems for individual service, barriers to employment, and general community awareness, Pendergrass says. 

The strategic systems committee developed two forms to help the various agencies cooperate: The first is an assessment form for individuals who come to any of the partner agencies for assistance—it collects such information as employment status, skills, and employment goals. The second is a multi-agency referral form—once needs have been assessed, the individual may need to be referred to a different agency. For example, if a person’s employment goals include getting a job that requires a high school diploma or GED certificate, the referral may be to adult education. These forms are currently in use by all partner agencies. 

The committee on barriers to employment found that the main road blocks encountered by potential workers were transportation, a lack of education, access to daycare, substance abuse, and having a criminal record. The first barrier that the group decided to tackle was the criminal background issue, as this is a segment of the population that often has difficulty finding an open door to employment. A representative from legal services will come and speak to the committee as well as the larger summit group to share strategies for putting former convicts on the right track. Down the road, the committee hopes to host a round table to talk to employers about exploring ways to give these folks an opportunity, Pendergrass says. 

The third committee on general community awareness surveyed county agencies to gather information about services provided, and handed that information off to the newly formed the Union County partners group. The partners group will host a public event in June to spotlight all of the partner agencies. The event’s aim is to let people know about services and tools that are available to them, from the 211 line and Benefit Bank to the agencies that are in Union County.

Photo credits: Banner—Ten at the Top; Top right —SC Works; Bottom left —Spartanburg Community College-Union Campus

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.