They might not have the bright lights of the big city, the hustle and bustle of crowds on Fifth Avenue or the Miracle Mile, but South Carolina's metropolitan areas have an appeal all their own.
Not surprisingly, people from large cities across the country have been discovering the benefits of the Palmetto State's smaller metro areas and have been moving in droves since the pandemic to improve their work-life balance.
As of July 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported South Carolina's population of 5.19 million was 1.4 percent higher than the previous year, and the metropolitan centers accounted for much of the growth.
"These areas have a lot of the same amenities as the bigger cities, like New York and Chicago, good retail, entertainment; they still have that city vibe, that's what makes them so attractive," said Laura Ullrich, an economist at the Charlotte branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
As the population grows in Charleston, Greenville and Charlotte-Gastonia at the North and South Carolina border, like the Pied Piper, companies are following the crowd of young workers and taking advantage of other amenities the state has to offer.
"Companies want a place where younger people are moving," said Ullrich.
Add the state's location on the East Coast, Charleston's port and tax incentives related to driving additional population growth, and it's an ideal enticement for businesses to invest in the state, said Ullrich.
Walmart Inc., encouraged by Charleston's vibrancy, growing population, the state's pro-business environment and its proximity to the deep-water Port of Charleston, opened a 3 million-square-foot import distribution
"One of the advantages of being a member of this vibrant community is the region's existing infrastructure, including the Port of Charleston and Interstates 26 and 95," said Charles Crowson, director of corporate communications.
Other large corporations and smaller businesses are, like Walmart, establishing themselves or expanding in and around the state's bigger metropolitan areas.
It's showing up in employment numbers. Statewide, seasonally adjusted figures from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce shows 79,900 new jobs were created since July 2021. Charleston drove 23 percent of the growth, with 18,400 jobs added. Greenville was second with 12,300 new positions, or 15 percent of the total.
Over the last 12 months, $3.8 billion in new investments have been made through 115 projects developed across the state, said Kelly Coakley, director of marketing and communications at the S.C. Department of Commerce.
"We've tracked about a billion dollars' worth of capital infusion announced in the Charleston region over the past year," said Megan Fink, director of marketing and communications at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. "That includes capital raises by local firms as well as capital investments by local firms."
In the 10-county Upstate region that includes Greenville, "We have been remarkably successful coming out of and during COVID," said John Lummus, president and CEO of the Upstate SC Alliance.
He attributed much of the state's good economic fortune to the statewide policy that allowed manufacturers to be considered a necessary business and stay open during the pandemic.
From 2020 to last month, 22 new projects brought a total investment of about $495 million to Greenville, according to the alliance.
At its new Dorchester County distribution center, Walmart employs more than 1,300 workers. It anticipates hiring and investing in the training and development of more than 200 more local full-timers.
And for manufacturers — one of the leading job growth sectors in the state — South Carolina has a "real advantage over competitor regions," said Lummus.
"The state has an incredible manufacturing economy and high-tech companies in the manufacturing sphere," he said. "In the Upstate, we have 110,000 people working in manufacturing and 2,100 manufacturers."
Looking at the unemployment rate — 3.2 percent in July — one might think that the industry is having trouble going to find the workforce they need, Lummus said.
"But they are finding workers from employed and underemployed people who can make more by moving up into higher tech jobs," he said.
Combine that with ReadySC — a workforce training program that is part of the state's technical college system — and manufacturers have a healthy pool of workers to draw from.
The same holds in Charleston and its suburbs, where Volvo Car USA announced it would build its first US plant in 2015 to manufacture its S60 mid-size sedan and XC90 sport utility vehicle.
"The Lowcountry offers easy access to international ports and infrastructure, a well-trained labor force, an attractive investment environment and experience in the high-tech manufacturing sector," said Katherine Bergmann, head of communications and community relations. "All of that, combined with the quality of life, makes Charleston a great place to live and build a career."
Volvo expects to grow its workforce over the next year and is looking for talent from all areas and demographics. As it competes for workers, recruitment challenges exist, Bergmann said.
But workforce challenges are particularly prevalent for smaller businesses in growth sectors, including leisure and hospitality, where 6,000 jobs have been added in the Charleston region over the last 12 months as the industry continued to recover from the pandemic.
One of the Charleston area's longtime restaurant chains knows the labor challenges all too well. The Kickin' Chicken is now closed on Tuesdays at all five locations throughout the Lowcountry because it can't get enough help.
"It's a struggle at all locations," said Chip Roberts, president and co-founder of the 25-year-old dining chain. "The problem is from top to bottom, from management all the way down. It's thin all over."
The restaurant group should have about 250 employees, but Roberts said it's operating on about 150.
The Kickin' Chicken has done better during the summer on hourly staff, but Roberts said, "If they don't feel like coming to work, they don't. You are already thin, so what are you going to do, fire them?"
Roberts said the chain considered closing part of the dining rooms to limit demands on the waitstaff, but he noted the restaurants still need someone with management skills to open and close.
"It's hard to find some skilled labor and cooks," he said.
Roberts pointed out it's easier to find help in the Charleston area's suburbs of Ladson, Goose Creek and Summerville.
Marilyn Knox with Culver's restaurant experienced that firsthand.
When the franchisee opened her second Charleston-area Culver's frozen custard and ButterBurger restaurant on Ladson Road on Aug. 29, she already had all 60 new employees lined up.
Knox said it took about a month to hire all the workers she needed at the new restaurant site.
She believes the secret is the way the company takes care of its employees through incentives, bonuses and holiday parties.
"People want to feel like they are part of a team," she said.
At the newly opened Pasture & Grain restaurant in Mount Pleasant, owner Ira Hill remembered being fully staffed almost immediately after announcing the new eatery planned to open in a former pizza restaurant in June.
"As time went on, we lost 40 percent of those we hired," he said in mid-August.
"It's been a labor of love for interviews," Hill said. "We are short-staffed, but we're not poorly staffed. It's universally challenging. You want quality workers as well."
He also is well aware of the challenges throughout the food-service industry in hiring and retaining workers.
"We are entering the business at one of the worst times in the industry, so we have to get it right and provide quality."
Construction is another sector grappling since COVID-19 with a nationwide labor shortage driven by a lack of qualified help, and that could impede progress in areas that need improvement to ensure the continued growth of South Carolina's metropolitan centers.
In South Carolina, more than 90 percent of companies responding to an Associated General Contractors of America survey said they have positions open. Nearly 80 percent are having difficulty finding workers to fill them. Employers that belong to the trade group attribute the crunch to a lack of candidates with the specific jobsite skills they need.
"There is plenty of work to perform and not enough people to do the projects," said Ken Simonson, AGC's chief economist
Staff reporter Warren L. Wise contributed to this report.