By L. C. Leach III

In January 1973, South Carolina was firmly entrenched in a textile empire, with Greenville County known as The Textile Capital of the World.

By January 2023, most traces of that empire will have perhaps vanished and given way to tech – a new empire powered not by looms and spindles, but computers, information systems, and all kinds of tech workers to operate almost every industry in the state.

With this knowledge, the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness (SCCOC), through a new initiative known as SC Tech, recently completed the state’s first technology cluster impact study to see how much the tech industry has grown in the last 20 years, and how much it is likely to grow in the future.

The answer in both cases is big – and with no limit on how big it could become.

“Since 2000, the number of tech firms has grown 254 percent (from 569 to 2,016),” said SCCOC President and CEO Susie Shannon. “This study will serve as a kick-starter to work with our private-public sector to build a statewide strategic plan that supports the technology cluster and allow more companies to see the benefits of doing business in South Carolina.”

While national sector-level reference tools, like CompTIA, include individual state snapshots, the SC Tech Study goes further in defining the full range of occupations and firms that fall into the tech industry and providing regional breakdowns that are essential to understanding the true size of technology in the state.

SC Tech’s 2020 report found that 180,801 employees are either employed in technology firms, or serve tech functions in non-tech firms, resulting in a total economic impact of $89 billion.

The 2019 average salary and wage for tech employees is $78,977, a significant jump from the statewide average wage of $44,986. Employment accounts for $14.3 billion in annual labor income.

The study also dives into the top occupations in the SC Tech cluster, with computer user support specialists, computer systems analysts, and industrial engineers topping the list.

“From being able to pinpoint areas of potential growth to knowing where to focus workforce programs, this study helps us better support the technology industry and therefore the state’s competitiveness as a whole,” said the council’s SC Tech Director Kim Christ.

The study also shows exponential growth among employment in SC Tech firms since 2005. In 2019 alone, SC Tech firms employed 108,276 South Carolinians, over twice as many as in 2005.

SCCOC unveiled its findings during a Dec. 8 webinar, with a presentation by Joseph Von Nessen, research economist with the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business in Columbia.

Using charts and graphs to show the growth of the state’s technical industry, Von Nessen discussed several key points of the study, including:

• Largest Tech Industries. The two industries with the largest concentration of tech employees are telecommunications and computer and electronic product manufacturing. Together, they comprise about 62 percent of the state’s total tech employment.

Utilities, on the low end, comprise 10.9 percent; while professional, technical, and scientific services stand at 12.6 percent.

• Employment and Economic Impact. The total amount of South Carolina tech workers, in both tech and non-tech firms, is now around 181,000 – which represents approximately 10 percent of the state’s entire employment base.

“S.C. tech jobs pay an average wage of close to $79,000 per year,” Von Nessen said. “And it is clearly bringing up the state average and growing it at some of the fastest rates among any sectors that we’ll see in South Carolina.”

• Increasing Reliance on Tech Firms. From 2010-19, reliance on tech firms grew significantly across many state industries, including: manufacturing – 81.7 percent; retail trade – 77.8 percent; finance and insurance – 100 percent; and leisure and hospitality, which grew the most at 262.5 percent.

And rather than being centered in one particular area across the state, tech growth is increasing in almost every community and region.

Charleston and the Lowcountry have the most tech employment with around 44 percent; followed by Greenville and the Upstate at 33.8 percent; and then Columbia and the Midlands around 22 percent.

Part of the reason for this growth, Von Nessen said, is due to more people moving to the Southeastern United States relative to other regions of the country.

“It’s creating a larger market and larger demand for consumer products,” he said. “And South Carolina is uniquely well-positioned geographically to be able to distribute goods through the Southeast, and able to take advantage of the Port of Charleston. And tech is becoming more and more important to support that industry as we move ahead.”

Going forward, Von Nessen, Shannon, and other members of the SCCOC expect this first tech study to be a blueprint for determining how individual South Carolina companies are utilizing technical knowledge and expertise to keep the state’s economy, workforce, and outlook as bright as possible.