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Listening to Local Businesses in South Carolina

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Under Secretary Nancy Potok tours South Carolina MTU, a German-owned diesel engine company with plant manager Jeorge Klisch.

Guest blog post by Nancy Potok, Commerce Deputy Under Secretary, Economics and Statistics Administration

In the heart of South Carolina’s picturesque horse community, I sat down at the Aiken County Chamber of Commerce to begin the first of two White House Business Council roundtable discussions with local business owners in Aiken and Columbia, S.C.  These discussions, focused on rural communities during the month of August, are designed to provide an intimate forum for local businesses to discuss the obstacles they face in creating jobs and growing their businesses. 

Attending that discussion, along with about 20 others was Jeorge Klisch, the plant manager of MTU, a German-owned diesel engine company formerly known as “Detroit Diesel” that has been located in Aiken about a year.  Earlier that morning I took a tour of MTU’s state of the art facility located about twelve miles outside Aiken in the once thriving manufacturing community of Graniteville, S.C.. Having grown up in Detroit with the required elementary school field trip to an automotive plant, I was expecting a hot, loud and oil covered environment.  In contrast, MTU was temperature controlled, clean and high tech.  During the tour, Klitsch shared with me their plans to  bring another 200 jobs to the Aiken area, the need for a skilled workforce, and his efforts to collaborate with surrounding area high schools and technical colleges to adjust their curriculum and support his “ work and learn” initiative that will help fill MTU’s future  need for engineers and technicians.  I noticed an absence of women in the workplace, but before I asked about it, Klisch said he want to dispel myths held by women about manufacturing jobs and plans to focus on introducing young women and girls to manufacturing, where they are significantly underrepresented at MTU.  MTU exports about 50 percent of its products and has invested more than $77 million in this new site with plans for expansion and increased production.  Very impressive and a great indication of the growth potential in the Aiken area.

The Roundtable participants in Aiken presented a number of concerns, including a nearly unanimous feeling of uncertainty about the near term economic future.  The Aiken business owners also had many constructive suggestions on how the Federal government might help create a more business friendly environment, including topics such as EPA standards, the impact of medicare cuts, and access to investment loans. I greatly appreciated the willingness of the Aiken Roundtable participants to take time away from their businesses to share their thoughts and suggestions. 

Afterward, I headed to Blythwood, located about 12 miles northwest of Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city for a tour of Pure Power Technologies.  Houman Kashanipour, PurePower’s Vice President and its General Manager Greg Butler shared with me the exciting story of how in 2009, through the cooperative efforts of the company’s management, employees, union, and the community, this plant was saved from closing, and 600 jobs were restored.  

Pure  Power Technologies is pioneering the next generation of clean engine control and fuel economy solutions. Holding more than 300 patents, Pure Power was delighted at my report that the Patent and Trademarks Office has been working hard to make the patents process more efficient and reduce approval backlogs, and that the Department of Commerce strongly supports patent reform legislation. In turn, I was delighted to hear that, similar to MTU, PurePower also is working to fill the high-tech, skilled worker pipeline by collaborating with local schools and universities on curriculum and internships. 

Late in the day, I met with over 20 participants from major South Carolina manufacturers and small business owners at a second business roundtable, hosted by the South Carolina Commerce Secretary’s office and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.  The participants were glad to learn about the Administration’s desire to hear directly from the people who are creating jobs and putting people back to work, and that their concerns would be communicated back to the White House Business Council in order to identify both solutions and opportunities for change. 

In both forums I heard pleas for stronger support for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and innovation.  I emphasized the White House Initiative on STEM education and the recent findings from two ESA reports about high earnings and job resiliency among STEM workers.

South Carolina hospitality is outstanding, and I want to thank everyone who helped make these roundtables possible.  Clearly, there are great opportunities for economic growth in that state, particularly with the commitment, energy and enthusiasm exhibited by the South Carolina business owners for achieving that goal.

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