(Article by David Thackham, The Herald)

Ron Roveri said he’s always happy to push students toward their passions.

As the director of Career and Technology Education with the S.C. Department of Education, Roveri is constantly working with students who have interests spanning from arts to zoology.

And he tries to give them every option to gain the skills they need, whether or not they require moving on to a four-year college.

“My son is looking to be a part of an apprenticeship in (mechanical engineering),” said Roveri, who has children studying in the Clover school district. “He wants to get into that field. But why would you want to steer him into a four-year institution to rack up a mountain of debt when he can learn the skills he needs in a different way and come out with a job?”

Roveri, the former director of the Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center in York, was one of several speakers at a local economic development summit recently who stressed the importance of adapting to a changing workforce landscape.

York County is on the right track to raise the new generation of coders, manufacturers and high-technology workers, Roveri said.

Those are coveted positions in a job market, especially in the Southeast where manufacturing is the “bread and butter,” according to one state Department of Commerce official.

Elisabeth Kovacs, deputy director of workforce development, said it is critical to have both industry professionals and education administrators working together to fit students with careers rather than trying to shoehorn the two together.

“(South Carolina’s) doing a good job of doing things collaboratively,” Kovacs said. “You cannot have successful economic development without a trained, steady workforce.”

Roveri said his department is looking to revitalize how computer science is taught in South Carolina classrooms to adapt to the changing workforce.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, the only computer science course required to graduate was keyboarding, Roveri said. He’s now working to put together a new plan for computer science requirements that soon should be up for public review.

If it passes review, Roveri said the new standard, which might include elementary coding and other 21st century skills, will be adopted in the new school year.

Whereas some leaders talked about making workers “market-ready” upon high school or college graduation, Roveri said he views it differently.

“There’s a term that fits perfectly,” he said. “‘Career-ready.’ York County gets it. They understand how critical it is to identify the components and get graduates who know what to do.”

That starts with allowing students to take advantage of apprenticeship or internship programs from an early point in high school, experts say.

Since its inception in 2007, the state-sponsored Apprenticeship Carolina has seen nine-fold growth from 90 eligible programs to 819. The program, which served just under 800 apprentices at first, now boasts over 17,000 alumni.

It’s just one of the options students have to enter fields such as nursing, pharmacy and information technology (IT). York County students have options to take courses and work from the Floyd T. Johnson center or the Applied Technology Center in Rock Hill.

Roveri said he foresees growing enrollment at York Technical College as more parents continue to push their students toward higher education.

Texas-based information technology company CompuCom told The Herald this month that a talented pool of high-level employees was a key reason the firm decided to build a corporate headquarters in Indian Land.

CompuCom will bring 100 jobs from its Charlotte office and create 1,400 new positions, according to spokesperson Bob Bundy.

Keeping kids interested in so-called “blue-collar” jobs is essential to growing that workforce, he said. Nearly 800 students in the York school district recently took an interactive “virtual field trip” to the Meritor headquarters in York.

The experience allowed hundreds of students to gain insight on a variety of high-tech careers, including those of machinists, assemblers, technicians and welders. Meritor, which hosted several of its employees on video, manufactures brake components and assembles brakes for several types of buses, coaches and military vehicles at its York plant on Railroad Avenue.

Meanwhile, Rock Hill officials have been working hard to attract high-tech businesses and employees to York County. In an effort to sway white-collar workers from commuting from Rock Hill to Charlotte each morning, the city recently launched a jobs portal designed to pinpoint “knowledge-economy” jobs, including engineering, design, IT, finance and marketing.

Attracting, recruiting and retaining high-value workers is key, according to Tricia Palm, vice president of human resources at Rock Hill-based collection agency Williams & Fudge.

“There is a knowledge gap in the industry,” she said. “We have to take the time to understand each generation, to study and know them. Is it really that scary if you invest in them and they leave? What’s scarier is you don’t invest in them and then they stay.”