Columbia's choices: What are we becoming?

Health care, IT and energy jobs could be Columbia's future

nophillips@thestate.comMarch 21, 2010 

Stan Lowder spends his days writing computer programs used by doctors and health clinics across the country.

Lowder, 56, is a systems analyst at HealthPort, a company with 140 employees that moved in November to Columbia's Main Street.

"We're involved in protecting health records and the secure transmission of those records to insurance companies," he said.

Lowder and HealthPort are part of a growing piece of Columbia's work force.

He is one of an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 people in the Midlands who work in the field of health information technology. Those people are employed by 38 local companies.

It's a work force segment that has been overshadowed by the city's reputation as a government town and the high-profile push for hydrogen research and jobs.

Columbia has the nation's fourth-highest concentration of professionals who specialize in insurance technology, said Lonnie Emard, executive director of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management, a local group that is promoting the information technology field throughout the Southeast.

"No one has ever told that story," Emard said.

Columbia will always be a government town thanks to state capital jobs, USC and Fort Jackson.

But it is important to diversify an economy to create a broad tax base, experts say. Columbia has some promising options.

Economic development leaders point to information technology and two other areas where they see future growth: Health care and energy, including hydrogen.

A lot of money and hope have been invested into creating a "knowledge-based" economy in Columbia. It is a fancy way of saying people will work with their brains, not brawn.

USC and state and local government already have spent nearly $41 million to position Columbia as a hub for the hydrogen and fuel cell industry.

That cooperation is one example of why it is important to note that the city of Columbia single-handedly cannot boost its economy.

"Quite frankly, when companies look at this area, they don't see municipal boundaries," said John Cadena, who works in SCANA's economic development office. "They look at the region as a whole. It's a team sport."

Still, city government is an important player - whether it is by selling water and sewer services to new industry or by awarding a grant to a local group to market a conference.

The next City Council will decide how to spend that money to help the local economy grow.

HEALTH CARE

Kay Wescott, 47, became a registered nurse about 10 years ago after attending Midlands Tech.

Registered nurses start earning $19 or $20 an hour, but the pay can rapidly increase, depending on specialization, shifts worked and other factors, she said.

"Oh my goodness, the sky's the limit," she said.

Wescott, who works at Palmetto Health Children's Hospital, said she appreciates the job security that nursing brings.

"I know that where I work there are ample opportunities to move up," she said. "Even with advances in medicine, there still will always be sick people."

Already, health care is the largest private employer in the city. And everyone expects it to expand as the population ages.

Val Richardson, Palmetto Health's work force development manager, spends her days talking about health care to middle and high school students.

The goal is to get them interested in health care at an early age and focus their school work toward that future.

Not only is the health system preparing to care for an aging baby boomer population, but it is keenly aware that its own work force is aging.

A few years ago, Palmetto Health researched the age of its work force, Richardson said. The study found that more than 45 percent of its most experienced workers were within seven years of retirement age.

The plan is to start early in recruiting people to become doctors, nurses, medical technologists and therapists, she said.

"All the people who touch people are who we will need for a long time to come," Richardson said.

Health care also offers opportunities outside the traditional occupations of doctors and nurses.

Take Wescott's husband, for example. He sells nurse call systems to assisted living facilities and other group homes for the elderly. Columbia is a home base for that business because it's easy to travel to other parts of the state to make sales calls.

And, it's a growth area, too, Wescott said.

"People want to live in places where they can be independent but still have built-in security," she said.

ENERGY

When people in Columbia speak about the energy sector, they're really talking about two widely different resources: Nuclear and hydrogen.

"Nuclear looks like it's going to be huge," said Don Herriott, the former president of Roche Carolina who was picked this year to direct USC's fledgling Innovista campus.

SCANA has asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency for approval to build two new nuclear reactors at its V.C. Summers Plant in Fairfield County.

If the project gets federal approval, SCANA expects to hire up to 3,000 people to build the reactors. And, it would need up to 800 workers to operate the reactors once they are online, said Eric Boomhower, a SCANA spokesman.

And, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Facility makes fuel for the industry at its plant on Bluff Road.

Neil McLean, executive director of EngenuitySC, an organization that promotes local high-tech entreprenuership, said companies that provide consulting and other services to the nuclear industry are likely to spring up.

"There's a short-term opportunity to have lots of jobs as we build these plants," he said. "But I think our bigger opportunity is to create nuclear service companies to serve these plants that will be built here and throughout the world."

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is in the startup stage.

In December, Columbia landed its first company in that field. Trulite, which builds hydrogen fuel-cell generators and hydrogen fuel canisters for commercial use, is moving its manufacturing and administration to Columbia.

USC has recruited researchers who are expected to develop ideas that can be turned into businesses.

Herriott described it as a "fountainhead" that creates a "river of commercialization."

"You may have the idea generated by a Ph.D., but it's going to be a business with all of the structure that goes along to operate it," he said. "You'll need a businessman to be the CEO, an accountant to be the CFO, human resources and all of that."

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Information technology already is a huge employer, even though many people may not realize it, said Emard, who leads the consortium that is promoting the field.

Most of the region's big-name companies - Michelin, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Bank of America - need IT specialists, he said.

"When kids hear of those companies, they don't think IT," Emard said. "They think of tires or health care or banking."

The jobs pay well, too, offering nearly $50,000 for starting salaries.

Kaye Shaw, executive director of the Midlands Education and Business Alliance, said a mismatch exists between the expected job growth in IT and the number of students who are interested in pursuing a career in it.

"We're thinking students don't understand all the jobs they can get into through IT," she said.

Emard's consortium is one of several groups working to change that. "It's so much bigger than fuel cells," he said. "When you talk about how many people will be affected by fuel cells versus how many people will be affected by information technology, it's not even comparable."

Health information technology is one niche within the IT field.

Columbia has been a player in that arena for years thanks to BlueCross BlueShield and Policy Management Systems Corp., which is now Computer Sciences Corp., in Blythewood.

Every bill from a doctor, hospital or other health care provider is handled electronically. So are claims processed by insurance companies.

Somebody has to write the programs to make it happen.

Downtown has room for more companies like HealthPort, especially since SCANA vacated the 20-story Palmetto Center on Main Street last year, said Gary Liuzzo, HealthPort's director of application development.

"Technology-wise, we need more companies to come to this area," he said. "There's a lot of good talent in the area.

"I don't know how much Columbia has been promoted. When you say Columbia, South Carolina, people don't think of it as a technology capital. But it could be."

GETTING THERE

So, what can City Council do to help Columbia prepare for the future?

The demands are far-reaching.

Already, a debate is brewing on how to spend city water and sewer revenue. Some say the city must continue using those funds to promote economic development. Others say that money needs to be funneled back into the system to repair aging pipelines.

The city is limited in its ability to provide tax incentives - that's generally the job of the state and sometimes the county. But the city has other resources to offer businesses, said Jim Gambrell, executive director of the Columbia Economic Development Office.

For example, it can provide parking. Or, it can help secure low-interest financing, which is what Columbia did to lure Mast General Store to Main Street.

In that case, the city and a state agency used a federal stimulus program to issue bonds with tax-exempt interest, he said.

The city also helps fund development organizations such as EngenuitySC and the City Center Partnership, which helps attract and keep businesses downtown.

Along with cash support, streetscaping and a police presence benefit the City Center Partnership's efforts, said executive director Matt Kennell.Other development organizations turn to the city for funding.

The city recently gave the IT consortium $10,000 to help market a software conference in April at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, Emard said.

Emard believes the conference will be a great chance to sell Columbia to 500 software developers.

And, council members must be ambassadors for the city, Gambrell said.

For example, Mayor Bob Coble twice has traveled to New York to offer assistance in finding a tenant for the Palmetto Center.

"We've laid out the open hand symbol to ask what we need to do," Gambrell said.

The idea of waiving business license fees has been floated.

Jim Reynolds, owner of Total Comfort Service Center, a heating and air-conditioning contractor in Columbia, said the city should consider other incentives for attracting industry.

"They come here because there's a good work force, and it's a good place to do business," he said. "Taxes need to be reasonable, but they don't need to be zero."

One step the city could take is merging its licensing and inspection departments as Lexington County has done. That is much easier for businesses to navigate, Reynolds said.

In Columbia, "you go from office to office to office and then they call you back because you didn't have the right form," he said. "It's not well-coordinated. It's built for the bureaucracy."

The bottom line, Gambrell said, is using all available resources to make sure the local economy grows.

"If you're not growing, you're dying," he said. "We need to be doing everything we can to make sure we have a growing, vibrant economy to make our city a viable place to live."

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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