June 11, 2013

Boeing's IT Workforce Bolsters Tech Economy Across Lowcountry

Matt Tomsic  /  Charleston Regional Business Journal

The Boeing Co. is boosting the Lowcountry's tech sector and increasing its diversity with plans to bring 600 information technology employees to North Charleston.

"It absolutely reaffirms in a very, very strong and a very, very positive way that the software industry in Charleston is absolutely sustainable and absolutely durable," said Ernest Andrade, executive director for the Charleston Digital Corridor. "It'll clearly become one of the anchors of the IT industry in Charleston. We continue to exceed extremely well, but now you've just added a lot of fuel to that growth."

Andrade said the high-tech sector makes up 4.7% of Charleston's economy, and the average wage in the sector is roughly $77,000. The multiplier effect for local job creation driven by high tech and manufacturing is 4.3 jobs.

"We have successfully demonstrated that we can build a sustainable knowledge economy in Charleston," Andrade said. "Now, what we're seeing is the addition of diversification within the tech industry. These are software jobs related to the aviation industry, so we've just added another dimension that further insulates our software industry and ensures it will continue to thrive irrespective of the typical bumps you see with economic cycles."

'Under-promises, over-delivers'

Boeing has signed a lease at 3875 Faber Place in North Charleston for temporary office space for some of the IT workers, said Andrew Favreau, spokesman for Boeing IT communications.

"Based on our current lease, we expect to house around 200 teammates in that location," Favreau said. "This is an ongoing process. We have some IT teammates that are located in South Carolina who have already started to move into this temporary location. We expect to fully staff Faber Place by the end of the first quarter (of) 2014."

The Lowcountry workforce additions are part of the aerospace giant's reorganization of its IT business group. In March, the company announced it would open IT centers of excellence in Puget Sound, St. Louis and North Charleston. At the time, officials weren't sure the number of employees who would be located at each site. The company's initial job count for St. Louis is also 600 IT employees, Favreau said, and in Washington state, Boeing expects to cut 1,500 IT jobs during the next three years. About 4,700 IT employees currently work in Puget Sound.

"It's jobs that we expect will go away through attrition, retirements, relocations and also reduction in force," Favreau said. "A lot of the decisions that go along with those reductions will just naturally evolve over time as we continue to work through the processes that we have in place."

Favreau said the company is still determining each site's work statement, which could impact the number of IT employees housed at each location.

"Once we complete that, we'll have a better idea on the number of jobs that will be located in the centers in all three of the locations," Favreau said. "The other thing that's challenging is that our plans continue to evolve and change. One of the things that we've committed to our employees is to be as transparent and as open as possible. It's difficult to give absolutes because, as we learn more, we make adjustments through our ongoing conversations with them."

The Lowcountry jobs figure came less than a week after Gov. Nikki Haley, state lawmakers and Boeing officials celebrated the passage of a $120 million bond bill, which will pay for infrastructure work related to Boeing's second phase of expansion in the Lowcountry. The company expects to add 2,000 jobs and invest another $1.1 billion during the next eight years, pushing its total employment to roughly 8,000 workers and its total investment to roughly $2 billion.

"This is a company that under-promises and over-delivers," said S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell before a ceremonial bill signing in May. "The history is it ends up being a lot bigger than what they tell you."

Building tech momentum

Boeing's addition of IT workers in North Charleston is expected to bolster the tech industry and its workforce.

"It's a welcome addition because it's going to add to our collective opportunity to attract additional talent here in Charleston," said Melanie Mathos, a spokeswoman for Blackbaud. "It might not have a direct impact on who we're hiring, but it lends to that overall momentum."

The new IT workers may also boost university enrollment, too, said Valerie Sessions, an associate professor of computer science at Charleston Southern University.

Sessions said some IT professionals have two-year degrees and could look to Lowcountry universities to complete a four-year degree. The IT work here also provides another potential employer for Lowcountry graduates, Sessions said.

"Hopefully some of the Charleston Southern graduates (will) be eligible for those positions and others it would spawn," Sessions said. "Boeing has already been a great supporter of the university, so with these new jobs, we're even more excited."

Chris Starr, chairman for the Department of Computer Science at the College of Charleston, said the announcement increases the number of 21st Century literate workers here and gives the region an edge as cities across the Southeast compete to be a tech hub.

Tech workforces tend to cluster in one place, Starr said, meaning tech meccas won't pop up in Charleston, Greenville, Columbia, Savannah and other Southeastern cities.

"I see that momentum building exponentially, not linearly," Starr said. "The acceleration is key for Charleston to be a winner as a tech city over other cities in the Southeast. I think we can expect many more amazing announcements in the upcoming year regarding IT development for Charleston."

Reach Matt Tomsic at 843-849-3144.