The South Carolina Legislature has taken steps to help the state's residents find better jobs by streamlining state agencies working around workforce. The Department of Commerce is also successful in recruiting more and higher-paying jobs for residents. South Carolina has low unemployment, yet employers are having an extremely difficult time finding people to work. At the heart of the problem is our labor force participation rate (LFPR). As of February 2023, only 55.9 percent of people eligible to work (South Carolinians 16 years or older, excluding active-duty military and those in institutional settings) were either employed or actively seeking employment. This is the third-lowest rate in the U.S.
Since last year, the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) has been seeking to determine the causes of this situation. To that end, last year, DEW established a Labor Force Participation Task Force. That group commissioned a survey of individuals who were in DEW wage records in 2019, claimed unemployment benefits in 2020 and did not appear in the 2021 wage records. Of that group, about 28 percent indicated that they were not currently working but could work if the right opportunity arose.
Naturally, that survey sought to determine why this group was not currently employed, asking about what they felt were their barriers to entering the labor force. The top answers were pay (23 percent), health (20 percent), gaps in employment history (19 percent) and lack of transportation (18 percent).
It is also important to note that in Tier IV counties (the most economically distressed areas in the state, which tend to be overwhelmingly rural), lack of transportation was the most common reason for non-participation in the labor force. Twenty-seven percent of respondents indicated that this was a barrier. People simply can't get to work. This is something that we, transit, anecdotally hear from many HR departments, but it is amazing to have the confirmation.
This challenge is at its core an economic development issue that needs the focus from all levels of government because if we increase the state's labor force participation rate by one percentage point, wages will increase by $1.4 billion, with the economic impact of that increase reverberating statewide.
Here's the challenge: A major issue transit agencies have is not having local funds to help draw down federal dollars. If you don't have a local match, you are not in the conversation for federal grants. And the state has not increased transit funding since 1987, which has remained around $6 million annually and is distributed among 27 transit agencies.
Some employers, however, are addressing the issue locally. Transit agencies often work specifically with employers to get employees to work. For example, Pee Dee Regional Transit Authority works with Harbor Freight to transport employees to jobs, and Harbor Freight subsidizes the service. This helps Harbor Freight with its workforce needs and helps a rural area secure needed economic and workforce development.
Transportation can take many forms: cars, bicycles, walking, trolleys, buses, trains, vanpools and many others. Transportation is also unique to each community. What will work in Myrtle Beach might not be beneficial in other parts of Horry County. And South Carolina does have challenges for transit, such as lack of density, which makes the need for those working in transit being at the table and engaging in conversations all the more important so transit can help provide solutions. Coast RTA is experimenting with vanpool in Horry and Georgetown counties.
Traditionally a program used in big cities, vanpool allows employers to identify 7-12 employees who live relatively close together to drive themselves to work using a publicly subsidized vehicle. For the cost of putting one full-size bus into service for one year at about $300,000, a transit system can subsidize 45 vanpools for the year. That provides more geographic coverage and preserves resources, like hard to come by drivers, for higher ridership areas. They expect to start the program this spring.
The Transportation Association of South Carolina represents all types of transit in South Carolina, and its members are working across the state to help find solutions to transportation issues for a broad section of people working, living, retiring and playing in our state. However, to really begin to serve our citizens and visitors, agencies need more support, we need more champions, and yes, more funding, to be able to serve our communities and play a vital role in continued economic growth.
Brian Piascik is General Manager of Coast RTA and current President of the Transportation Association of South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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