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White guys in tall buildings

Posted: February 18, 2014 8:23 a.m.
Updated: February 19, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The other day, a long time South Carolina businessman remarked that in the past, the top 10 leaders in our state were the 10 white males that had the 10 biggest corner offices on the top floor of the 10 tallest buildings in the state.

Collectively, they called the shots. When they decided what they thought the state should do, they called in whichever other white guy happened to be governor at the time and told him what should be done; and who ever happened to be the governor pretty much said, “Yes sir, I’ll get right on it.”

These white guys were pretty much a benevolent oligarchy. They were largely born and raised in the state; most had family roots here that went back several generations. Where their great-grandfathers had run paternalist plantations, their grandfathers ran paternalistic mill villages and they ran the stable, conservative economic infrastructure that supported the business of modern day South Carolina.

They were good and decent men looking out for the general welfare of our state and their own personal interest -- not always in that order.

They believed in the idea of “progresses,” whatever that meant -- at least progress for white folks. They didn’t think much of education as they feared it would lead to a more educated workforce that would demand higher wages and undercut what they saw as our state’s low wage, non-union competitive advantage.

Things in the state went along pretty much to their liking until something they could not control happened -- China, Asia and other ultra-low wage economies got into the textile and fabric business. In less than a generation, the state’s dominant industry almost disappeared and it was only with the influx of new higher end manufacturers, mostly from Europe, that our economy recovered.

Now, this global economy is shifting again -- it’s called re-shoring. With wage rates and other costs escalating overseas, the manufacturing jobs are coming back to the U.S. And the question is: can today’s leaders in our state take advantage of these changes to make our state competitive in the global economy of the 21st century?

It’s an open question.

First, let’s consider who our state’s leaders are. The old days of the 10 white guys is gone. The 10 tallest buildings became the 50 tallest and then 250 low-rise buildings in office parks. While once there were 10 people, now there are dozens. Today, there are some black folks among them, a few women, and many of the white men have ethnic surnames; they were born in other states or overseas, and after a few years here in South Carolina, they will be gone to wherever their next company promotion takes them.

Secondly, they have done a 180-degree turn on education since the old days. They absolutely realize that the key to their companies’ and our state’s future is directly dependent on how we educate our emerging workforce for the high skill jobs of the future. They are collectively sounding the alarm bell; it is their number one issue and they are quick to tell anyone who will listen that we are not doing enough -- not near enough.

Third, they are looking to the state to fix the problem with an improved education system and job training. They call it “manpower development” which is just a fancy term for an educated and technically competent workforce. As individual companies, they can’t educate and develop their own workforce and they know that only the state can do what is needed.

All of this is laid out in great detail in a new study entitled South Carolina’s Manufacturing Renaissance: an action plan for strengthening workforce development.While we once had 10 white guys setting policy, now we have dozens of leaders that speak with an organizational voice such as the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, New Carolina, S.C. Manufactures Alliance and others -- i.e. the sponsors of the study.

The business community’s response could not be clearer -- education is the key and the state must step up and provide this education and job training. They all say the same thing in the study: BMW, Boeing, Milliken, SCANNA, FujiFilm, Cox Industries, GE, Hamrick Mills, Michelin, Bridgestone, Nucor, Bosch, Sonoco, and on and on it goes.

And while the economic leadership has changed dramatically, so too has the political leadership changed -- and therein lies another part of the problem: the once all-powerful Democratic Party seems to have been consigned to an ineffective permanent minority status, and the mainstream Republicans are increasingly being challenged by the Tea Party extremists that don’t want government to spend any money on much of anything. Their war cry is “cut taxes – all of them.”

And here lies the challenge: business leaders know that only the state can provide the needed education and support to train the needed workforce -- while increasingly the extremists who control the legislature won’t pay for it.

While in the old days, the politicians came running when the 10 white guys called and did what needed to be done; now, the Tea Party guys won’t even show up for the meeting.

This is the new test for the new leaders of our state: will they roll up their sleeves and get involved in the nitty gritty dirty businesses of politics? Or will they let the Tea Party bullies run this state, defund education and job training … and ultimately allow them to kill their business?

Almost makes you miss the days of the 10 white boys.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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