South Carolina is now the second-most-popular destination for movers in the United States, with Charleston adding 34 newcomers every day. Economists predict this may be due in part to a larger trend of people seeking locations where housing costs are relatively lower (statewide, 25 percent below the national average), climates are more temperate and job growth has been at or above national averages. Much of this job growth can be attributed to the Charleston Aviation Complex (which includes Boeing South Carolina, the Charleston County Aviation Authority, the Charleston International Airport terminals and Joint Base Charleston). The complex contributes billions to the region’s economy and supports thousands of local jobs. And Boeing’s latest additions to its operations continue to dramatically expand and diversify the region’s aerospace sector. Aerospace manufacturing (led by Boeing) is slated to create the most jobs for the Charleston region, with physicians, restaurants and computer systems design not far behind.
The Charleston region’s population is growing three times faster than the U.S. average, to more than 744,000. A steady stream of well-educated young talent who come for jobs — or create their own in the business-friendly community — are helping to boost that number.
The median age in Charleston County is 35.8 years old, 36.9 in Berkeley County and 35.5 in Dorchester County, meaning the workforce skews younger. The workforce is expected to get even younger as millennials are flocking to the area in droves. Median household income in Charleston County is $57,882, $56,697 in Berkeley County and $58,685 in Dorchester County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By Land and Sea
South Carolina’s first transportation revolution was the development of a network of canals and waterways. From the 1790s to the 1830s, the Palmetto State was a pre-eminent leader in infrastructure improvements and developed an extensive system of more than 2,000 miles of canals and waterways connecting virtually every part of the state with the coast and the Port of Charleston. The geography of South Carolina dictated the development of its canals and river navigation schemes, but it was cotton, the state’s all-important cash crop, that necessitated this mode of transportation. The goal was to transport cotton from plantations across the state to the port of Charleston for shipment. From the first settlement in South Carolina, economic success was in fact dependent on waterways. But in the 1830s, the canal boom ended when another transportation innovation, the railroad, superseded waterway travel as the primary link to the ports.
Railroads played a significant role in the Charleston area during the Civil War with troop movement, but their greatest use was for transporting goods and material to aid in the war effort. Many miles of track were destroyed by Gen. William T. Sherman on his march through South Carolina, but many miles were also torn up by locals to be used on more important lines across the state and the Confederacy. After the war, South Carolinians made quick repairs and by 1870 had added another 300 miles of new track.
The Port of Charleston suffered in the wake of the Civil War. The harbor itself was in shambles and filled with mines and the wrecks of sunken Confederate and Union ships. The Southern economy had little to export, and Charleston’s network of private waterfronts was neglected and left to ruin. The establishment of several major federal military bases during the early 20th century benefited Charleston Harbor tremendously. Because of this federal presence, the harbor itself was well-maintained and greatly improved over the years. Today, the Port of Charleston is one of the largest ports in the United States, boasts the deepest water in the southeast region and regularly handles ships too big to transit through the Panama Canal.
The latest shot in the arm to Charleston’s economy comes from Volvo Cars of America, which broke ground on its first American manufacturing plant in Berkeley County in September 2016. The factory will eventually be capable of producing 150,000 cars per year and started rolling sedans off the assembly line in 2018. Officials estimate the creation of 2,000 direct jobs with over 8,000 total jobs in the area as a result.
Charleston’s earliest history is tied to its prominence as a center of trade. From the founding of the colony until the days of the Civil War, the colony’s principal exports were lumber and naval stores, furs and animal skins, rice, indigo, cotton and tobacco — all abundant in an economy based on plantations and slave labor. Exports of rice and indigo crops led South Carolina to become one of the wealthiest colonies prior to the American Revolution. Near the beginning of the 18th century, planters began rice culture along the coast, mainly in the Georgetown and Charleston areas. The rice became known as Carolina Gold, both for its color and its ability to produce great fortunes for plantation owners. In the 19th century, the invention of the cotton gin enabled profitable processing of short-staple cotton, which grew better in the area than long-staple cotton. The Civil War ruined the economy, and continued dependence on agriculture made South Carolina one of the poorest states for the next century.
In the 1950s, as factories were built across the state, the great majority of farmers left agriculture. The rapid decline of agriculture in the state has been one of the most important developments since the 1960s. As late as 1960, more than half the state’s cotton was picked by hand. Over the next 20 years, mechanization eliminated tens of thousands of jobs in rural counties. Cotton was no longer king, as cotton lands were converted into timberlands.
Service industries, such as tourism, education and medical care, grew rapidly, as the textile factories faded after 1970 with movement of jobs offshore.
Today, Charleston enjoys a diverse economy. An abundant and well-educated workforce is employed in thriving chemical, automotive, telecommunications, healthcare and professional services sectors. Retail trade and tourism are also thriving economic sectors.
Military Impact on South Carolina
Joint Base Charleston has a total economic impact of $8.7 billion each year according to a 2017 economic impact study by the South Carolina Military Base Task Force and the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. The base is associated with approximately 50,000 jobs and $3.6 billion in labor income.