We all know Charleston, South Carolina for its beautiful beaches, tourism, foodie scene, leisurely pace and southern hospitality. While more and more families, businesses and top talent flock to Charleston, most don’t realize the extent to which the technology, government and defense communities are growing within Charleston and its surrounding areas. These leading industries, particularly those related to defense, are the core to the growing attractiveness of Charleston beyond just weekend tourists. As we head into a New Year and new administration, we are sure to see changes in defense budgets and spending. It’s important for both defense industry-related talent and organizations to rethink the way they operate. When looking at my own career opportunities, Charleston was the easy decision – so I’ll let you in on a little secret – those in the defense industry who are staying ahead of the competition are migrating to Charleston. Below are the five reasons why Charleston is the best kept secret of the defense industry.
1. Defense Industry impact on South Carolina economy
Government and defense are often synonymous with places like Washington, D.C., Virginia and San Diego. But the defense industry has a huge economic impact on South Carolina as well, surpassing both the hospitality and tourism industries. According to a report from last year, the growing defense industry in Charleston and its surrounding region represents a total economic impact of approximately $19.3 billion for the state of South Carolina, including goods and services that are directly or indirectly impacting the defense community. As of 2015, the military community represents 152,812 jobs and over $8.6 billion in labor income for South Carolinians. This tremendous economic impact puts Charleston and its surrounding areas on equal footing as D.C. or San Diego.
2. Labor cost perspective
Simply put, it is less expensive to operate a business in South Carolina than it is California or Virginia, making it much more attractive to defense employers. It’s a big reason why huge corporations like Boeing have made the Charleston area its East Coast center of gravity. South Carolina is a right to work state, eliminating the need to deal with unions, and labor costs are generally 30% cheaper.
It benefits defense industry top talent as well. While the location pay for Charleston is approximately 11% lower than that of San Diego or Washington, when you look at the cost of living (my next point), the overall impact of location pay is much smaller. Plus, from the government and defense perspective, scale and years of experience are much more standardized in this industry.
3. Cost of Living
It will come as no surprise that the cost of living is less in South Carolina than California, Washington, D.C. or Virginia. Houses are more affordable, you get more space for your dollar and general living expenses are lower. Charleston County boasts some of the strongest public schools in the state. Charleston also has the 8th ranked high school in the country, Academic Magnet High School, and the 17th ranked elementary school, Buist Academy, according to USA Today. US News and World Report also named The Citadel the #1 Public College in the South and the #1 Best Value in the South. Not only is cost of living lower, but Charleston area residents are also treated to southern hospitality and beautiful beaches, so it makes sense that it was recently voted the best city in the world by Travel + Leisure.
4. Growth Potential
Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Defense has committed over $38 billion to defense contractors operating in South Carolina. The federal funding that enters the state through military funding produces new spending, and ultimately new jobs and additional income for South Carolina. The state also boasts 38,091 active-duty military personnel, 18,916 military reserve personnel, and 57,755 military retirees, making it the 10th (and growing) highest active duty military population and the 9th highest military retiree population in the U.S. The defense industry isn’t the only growing industry either – Charleston has also become a major manufacturing center with both Chrysler and Volvo investing in large manufacturing plants in the area over the next several years.
It’s not just the cost of living that draws top talent to the Charleston area; it’s the lifestyle. There are the obvious things – the beaches, the southern charm (the real deal, not the Bravo show), the food, the music – but it also offers a work/life balance that other cities do not. Think of the metro D.C. area in comparison. Due to the high cost of living, many residents choose to live in a suburb, forcing them to endure unbearable lengthy commutes, which ultimately result in less time spent with family and more time spent in traffic. My commute in Charleston is 8 minutes each way, paving the way for a much better work/life balance. It’s not just the cost of living, it’s not spending 2-4 hours in your car every day.
Charleston is often called the friendliest city in the U.S. too. Seems silly to select your hometown on being friendly? It’s not. The last time I was in D.C., I was driving to the airport to catch my flight home. I was in stopped traffic and needed to switch lanes – when I inched over, instead of a friendly wave, I was met with an expletive-filled tirade by a woman who felt it necessary to literally get out of her car to tell me her thoughts. People can be rude everywhere, but road rage incidents like that just don’t happen in Charleston. And no hard feelings towards that woman – I’d be angry too about that commute!
As people continue to flock to Charleston, the fabric of the city remains the same. Transplants adapt to the way of life here and the city, not the other way around. It’s simple really: better food + better beaches + affordability = happier people and happier organizations. The secret is out, especially for Charleston and its growing defense industry.
Josh Hatter is President of the Charleston Defense Contractors Association (CDCA) and business development manager for General Dynamics.