Workforce is key to capitalizing on agribusiness and population growth in Columbus

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories that provides an overview of the economies of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina.

The 954 square miles of vast farmland and forests have shaped Columbus County’s economy for generations. 

Workers assemble greenhouses for specialty crops near Southeast Regional Industrial Park, which is a certified food and beverage processing park.

“We can grow anything,” said Columbus County Economic Development Director Gary Lanier. “Because of our farming heritage, we also have people who are good workers.”

Training those workers for agribusiness jobs or other sectors often falls on the shoulders of Southeastern Community College. 

President Chris English has witnessed firsthand the role that education can play in workforce development in Columbus County. “We are the catalyst for change in many ways,” he said. 

Southeastern Community College President Chris English

English called this training process “stackable credentialing,” in which students can receive training at the community college to get a job, then come back for a certificate or associate’s degree to further expand their opportunities for career advancement and even transfer to a four-year university. 

Lanier, who is on the SCC board of trustees, is especially impressed with the dual program, which allows local high school students to take classes at SCC. He has even awarded some associate’s degrees to these dually enrolled students before they get their high school degree. 

Economic Development Director Gary Lanier

“They were able to get that much of a jump start on a career by taking advantage of what Southeastern Community College and our local school systems are cooperatively offering,” Lanier said. “We always talk about paying for school, student debt and what a challenge that can be for some families who don’t have the financial resources that other families have. Here’s an opportunity.”

Opportunities like this are key to workforce development in Columbus County.  “I think our public schools are very strong, and they’re working with the community college now in developing this pipeline that companies are going to look for,” English said.

Ricky Bullard, chairman of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, added that the county commissioners have spent more than $40 million recently for two new county schools and another $20 million on a new classroom building at Whiteville High School. “We’re investing in education, and that’s always a plus for a county,” he said. “A good educated workforce will make companies money and keep them in business.”

County Commissioners Chair Ricky Bullard

International Paper, which is Columbus County’s largest company, has been the county’s primary industrial anchor for decades. Not only has it provided 800 jobs in the region, International Paper has also given back to the community through reading and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs, food drives, and scholarships. “It’s sent a lot of kids to school over the years,” Lanier said. 

Changes in education pipeline

Workforce development, however, has changed in recent generations, but SCC is committed to educating the next line of employees. “Technology changes, and we know that,” English said. “We meet that need at various points for a student.”

One key to growth is training young workers in a county with an older population.

Lanier argues that these credentials are much more important now, as technology has overtaken the manufacturing industry. “About 40 years ago, you would build a $15 million plant and hire 100 people to operate it. Now you build a $100 million plant, and you hire 15 people to operate it,” he said. “It’s just smarter to invest in automated systems that can do the repetitive tasks that people used to get paid $8 to $10 an hour to do.”

To help get the county residents the training they need in automated manufacturing, Lanier, along with English, are advocating for greater broadband access. While the vast farmland that stretches across Columbus County provides ample opportunity for agrarian economic development through crop and livestock, it also limits internet availability. The internet needs a power source to work, which many rural areas don’t have. “We’re such a huge county and such a rural population that we’re still playing catch-up with the infrastructure to get it into the ground,” Lanier said. “Until we address that part of the problem, you can’t even necessarily begin to address the cost profile problem for some families.”

Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) is planning to invest $40 million in Columbus County to provide high-speed internet to 10,000 homes. Those 10,000 families have either had low-speed internet or no internet at all. 

There are nearly 1,000 businesses in Columbus County.

These difficulties surrounding internet access contribute to the limited availability of a skilled workforce in the county. “While bringing manufacturing in is great, you’ve still got to have people to dig the ditches,” English said. “We lack a lot of that in Columbus County because the skilled trades have gone away.”

The occupations expected to comprise the most jobs are construction and extraction, food preparation and serving, architecture and engineering, business and financial operations, and computer sciences, according to North Carolina’s Southeast, a public-private organization that helps support and market economic development in 18 counties of the state’s southeast. 

Though the population has seen a slight decrease in recent years, an in-migration of people looking to live near growing coastal areas is expected.

Within these industries, Columbus County residents earn $42,496 per year on average.

‘Zoomers’ on the way

Bullard, however, believes that county residents are ready for the challenge. “We’ve got people who want good-paying jobs,” he said.

One reason for this available workforce is Columbus County’s proximity to high-growth areas like Brunswick and New Hanover counties, according to County Manager Eddie Madden. “As growth continues to occur there, it will logically trigger growth here,” he said, adding that Columbus County also has good access to roads.

Columbus Jobs Foundation Chair Les High

That’s why Les High, chairman of Columbus Jobs Foundation and publisher of Border Belt Independent, is advocating for improvements to major thoroughfares. “The Columbus Jobs Foundation believes that a good deal of future growth will come in the form of residential development as the county becomes a bedroom community to Myrtle Beach and Wilmington,” he said. “‘Zoomers’ who can now work at home are buying houses across the county, finding a low cost of living and high quality of life in small communities. The housing market now is as hot as I can remember it.”

New businesses are expected to soon follow the population influx into Columbus County. As a result, county commissioners have been providing companies with incentives to locate here. “We’ve got a motto within the county commissioners: We’ll do whatever it takes to help get those businesses in Columbus County,” Bullard said. “I’m sure there are some more things we can do, but we’re making some good progress.” 

County Manager Eddie Madden

Madden agreed. “We’re going to be as competitive as we can when it comes to recruiting businesses,” he said. “It’s a high priority for us.”

Lack of industrial buildings

Within Columbus County, businesses have their choice of two industrial parks: Tabor Industrial Park in Tabor City and Southeast Regional Park between Whiteville and Chadbourn. There is also a third park, called International Logistics Park, but it is located primarily in Brunswick County. 

While Tabor Industrial and Southeast Regional parks are designed for smaller operations, the International Logistics Park can accommodate large outfits.

These parks, however, are full. That means the county’s main deterrent to economic development is the availability of facilities for new companies. “I am out of industrial buildings,” Lanier said, adding that most projects require an existing building. “If you don’t have any, you’re not even in the game eight times out of 10.” 

Some businesses are not letting the lack of facilities deter them from setting up operations here. An agribusiness company called Jay Technologies recently began building greenhouses for specialty crops on land next to Southeast Industrial Park, which is owned by the Columbus Jobs Foundation.

To prepare for the expected influx of people and businesses, High of Columbus Jobs Foundation argues that the county and its municipalities need to tighten or enforce zoning regulations; improve downtowns to provide food, fun and fellowship; make sure Columbus Regional Healthcare System and its 500 employees stays strong; expand sewer capacity; protect the county’s three rivers and Lake Waccamaw; continue to improve highways; and increase outdoor opportunities. 

“If we do this and people move to Columbus County in the numbers we expect, mom-and-pop companies will be created from the ground up to serve new residents and create jobs that will likely be sustained for decades,” High said.

Editor’s note: Les High, quoted in this story as chairman of the Columbus Jobs Foundation, is also publisher of The Border Border Belt Independent.