Annual report highlights Columbia region's strengths, challenges.

While the 2020-21 Midlands Competitiveness Report highlighted some traditional regional strengths, it also pinpointed what EngenuitySC executive director Meghan Hickman likes to call opportunities.

The annual report produced by the regional nonprofit management profit ranks Columbia and nine surrounding, similar areas in five key metrics. It seventh iteration once again found the Midlands shines in its entrepreneurial landscape but struggles to retain the talent it produces.

While the Midlands rank fifth in both number of associate degrees and bachelor's degrees or higher earned, the region is ninth in talent, which measures the ability to attract, develop and maintain a skilled workforce. The region ranks eighth in both STEM degrees and salaries, factors contributing to the low ranking that, while an improvement of one spot from last year's competitiveness report, indicates work left to do.

"This implies that many of Columbia's college graduates are not working in high-growth, high-demand fields such as computer science or engineering," Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business who compiles report data, said during a Jan. 25 presentation of its findings.

However, Von Nessen told the Columbia Regional Business Report that the COVID-19 pandemic offers the Midlands a chance to change that, as remote working becomes more common. Industries can recruit local talent and not shuttle those workers to New York or California.

"You can hire them remotely. You can hire them from anywhere," he said. "We can create and market Columbia as a talent base for all these companies. It's got to be a partnership between the employers and the city in terms of how to reach out to these individuals and to provide them with incentives to stay locally."

That's one of the opportunities Hickman identified, along with a new partnership between Midlands Technical College and Columbia website developer Cyberwoven. Called Create Opportunity, the program will offer accelerated job training and job placement in an attempt to build a sustainable workforce pipeline.

"Every year, we're graduating thousands out of our institutions of higher education," Hickman said. "There are some serious assets that we have at our disposal when it comes to producing excellent, well-prepared, workforce-ready talent. I think the disconnect is that I don't know that we've done as much as we can to associate the kind of industries...

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