Greenwood Together sees opportunity amid the current economic challenges.

In a volatile economy affected by service industry labor shortages and supply chain issues, the leaders of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce-led workforce development initiative see the chance to transform the area’s employment opportunities.

Greenwood Together was formed a year ago to spearhead economic and workforce development in the community after the dissolution of the Greenwood Partnership Alliance. Its goal, Chamber President and CEO Barbara Ann Heegan said, is to work together across Greenwood’s many sectors to come up with collaborative solutions to the problems stunting the area’s growth.

The group broke out into subcommittees to look at matters involving health care, manufacturing, nonprofits, small businesses, education, marketing and government’s role in all this. Now, after a year of meetings and brainstorming, those committees are coming together to collaborate on the ideas they’ve proposed.

“One of the key accomplishments of all the subcommittees was the collective impact model, meaning that we’ve all come together to solve this critical need of filling well over 2,000 open positions that we identified here in Greenwood County,” Heegan said.

Getting unemployed people into the workforce isn’t as easy as connecting them with available jobs. Many people lack access to reliable transportation for work, others need reliable child and health care options and without affordable housing options, people may be disinclined to move here for a job. Greenwood Together has taken on the challenge of helping people overcome these employment barriers.

Workforce Development Chairperson Jim Medford said the group hit the ground running after working with a firm to develop a strategic plan. He and Heegan met more than 50 times with local businesses while the subcommittees explored the problems and potential solutions in their respective areas.

How do you encourage people who haven’t been in the workforce for a while to seek employment? Medford said it’s by making working attractive — people who currently use government assistance need to see their lives improve when they leave that assistance for a job.

“We have some ways to go,” said Teresa Goodman, executive director of Community Initiatives and head of the nonprofits subcommittee. “We have to have some type of plan to get them from point A to point B, and point B is going to be where they’re making more money in these jobs that may be entry-level now, but we do have a plan to address that.”

Medford referred to it as “bridging the gap,” or providing assistance for workers who will lose their government benefits when they start a new job. Goodman said that’s where nonprofits can play their role.

“That’s the gap where people are going to give up,” she said. “I think one of the biggest things that industries forget is that nonprofits are community partners.”

Free medical clinics can offer new employees medical care while they wait for their new health insurance to kick in, and other nonprofits can help with matters like rental assistance if a new employee loses financial aid for housing.

These groups are building partnerships with Piedmont Technical College and Greenwood County School District 50 to provide continuing education and professional training that will help people land well-paying jobs, she said. Not everyone will go to a two or four-year college, but training in essential workplace skills can go a long way to help people secure employment.

It’s also about training employers, Goodman said. Training human resources staff at small businesses is key in equipping those companies with the institutional resources they need, but she also wants to teach employers about the struggles of poverty and how that can affect incoming workers.

“We want to talk about poverty and what it is and help them understand, because a lot of people who are in these positions have not experienced it themselves,” she said.

Employer training sessions are already planned for January, teaching workplaces about poverty and the intersections of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion — called JEDI training.

Filling that gap could take “navigators,” or staff paid to help people navigate the network of nonprofits and other options available to them. Heegan said she was a navigator when she worked in New York, and they do wonders to connect people with the services they need most.

It’s a two-way street — Medford said when looking at fast-food restaurants in Greenwood, Chick-fil-A pays the highest and gets what they pay for in the form of a well-staffed restaurant. Wages have risen, but he said Greenwood Together will also be working with employers to explore what benefits they can give new employees to make working there more enticing and set staff up for success.

Steve Riley headed the small business and food service subcommittee, and said small businesses make up about half of the business in Greenwood County. A lot of small businesses hire part-time and serve as a bridge to bigger industry jobs.

Small businesses can often offer flexible hours. Their weakness, however, is a lack of the human resources staff bigger companies often have. This leaves them without anyone to help ensure the business is in compliance with things like signage, e-verify and employment-related documentation.

“Most small businesses are two, three, four employees. They don’t have HR staff,” he said. “All these things, I bet you 50% of these small businesses do not have.”

This need sparked a new business idea: A part-time HR person to work with small businesses and offer that help they’ve needed. Medford said these challenges offer up several opportunities for new businesses, including new child care facilities and transportation options to help get people to work.

“This is a unique time in our lives where because of the circumstances we’re dealing with, significant change can be had, approaching it from a collaborative effort like we have,” he said.

Things have shifted from talking about solutions to trying to implement them, Medford said. The chamber is working with Lonza to recruit workers on U.S. military bases, and recruitment efforts are expanding outside of Greenwood and out of South Carolina.

“We want to tell our story outside of Greenwood, to high-tax areas where they’ll consider relocating — people coming from Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, LA and try to share our story with them,” Heegan said.

The county’s partnership with McCormick Area Transit has made transportation more accessible, but Heegan said she’s met with Enterprise about van sharing and hopes local industries will finance van sharing or offer new hires rental cars to help overcome people’s lack of transportation.

While new apartments are going up by the YMCA, Medford said Greenwood Together has been talking with Greenwood’s new modular housing industry, Impresa, to explore micro-housing. The government subcommittee is looking to expand water, sewer and power infrastructure to areas that can then be sites for housing development, he said.

It will take a combination of short and long-term efforts, Medford said, and their strategy stretches out five years so far. But this time of volatility and transformation seems perfect, he said, to build new networks that can help Greenwood grow.

At the heart of all these efforts, Heegan said the chamber of commerce is equipped to help connect these groups and build a network of like-minded advocates pushing for these changes.

“That is the chamber’s role, being the coordinator, the facilitator, connecting the dots, connecting the people,” she said. “It’s a very natural fit for us to help and partner with our nonprofits, to help partner with our business community to close the gap.”

Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.