Horry-Georgetown Technical College graduated 1,300 people Wednesday into a job market still experiencing extreme losses in some sectors while seeing some of the worst worker shortages in a generation.

The graduates came from dozens of different degree programs, ranging from accounting to culinary arts to nursing. The youngest person to graduate was just 17 while the oldest was 76. Many of them also spent the last 15 months finishing school during the coronavirus pandemic.

The students had to switch to online or hybrid classes on a moment’s notice and balance greater duties at home with school. It’s common for technical and community college students to have second jobs, and some likely dealt job losses in the last year as well.

“Your journey to this point may have been daunting, as you cope with rigorous course loads, dealt with personal and financial challenges that sometimes put your graduation in doubt,” HGTC President Marilyn Fore told graduates at HGTC’s spring commencement Wednesday. “Through it all, you remained faithful, a symbol of your determination and the value you placed on your HGTC education.

The school graduated 35 veterans alongside 55 students from the 13th class of its early college high school program. Students came from states as far as away as Texas and Washington and countries as far as Japan and Uzbekistan.

“Always remember all that you’ve been able to overcome this year and we applaud you for your persistence,” Fore said.

These graduates are leaving school as Myrtle Beach faces an extraordinary worker shortage in its hospitality industry. For months, it has been hard to find a hotel, restaurant or retail store without a help wanted sign out front. Businesses can’t find servers, cooks, managers or salespeople.

If HGTC’s graduates stay in the region, they could help fill some of those gaps.

In April, the most recent data available, professional and business services — office jobs — as well as government jobs are still suffering from layoffs and other losses, while the hospitality and leisure industry made strong gains nationally, according to the federal labor department. The latest state-level data is from March, when South Carolina’s labor department reported that the hospitality industry saw stagnant job growth even as businesses had begun reporting worker shortages.

Gov. Henry McMaster attended the ceremony as recipient of HGTC’s Distinguished Patron award for his work in advancing higher education. But he surprised Fore by awarding her with the Order of the Palmetto. Created in 1971, the Governor’s Office calls it “the state’s highest civilian honor awarded to citizens of South Carolina for extraordinary lifetime service.”

“She is one of the best South Carolina has to offer,” McMaster said. The Order of the Palmetto “is signed by me, your proud, happy governor on behalf of 5.2 million proud, happy citizens.”

McMaster then spoke to graduates, telling them an anecdote from the infamous WWII-movie Saving Private Ryan, where toward the end of the film Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) tells Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) to “earn this,” implying that Ryan should make the best of Miller’s sacrifice.

Noting the presence of the veterans at the ceremony, McMaster said the sacrifices of countless of Americans in the nation’s nearly 250 year history had brought the graduates to where they were today.

“Some believed and invested in you today, just as others had in them before. No one gets anywhere by themselves,” McMaster said. “That’s why the words ‘earn this’ and ‘don’t mess it up’ seem appropriate at this beautiful commencement ceremony. Because this is a beginning.”

He added that the graduates receiving their degrees is just a first step, because even the smartest people “happily confess that the more they experience, learn and understand, the more they realize how much there is to know and how little they know of it.”

If there was any question of how much the nation still has yet to learn, McMaster joked that one survey showed that 22% of Americans could name all five members of the Simpsons but only 1 in every 1000 could name all five freedoms of the first amendment: speech, press, religion, assembly and petition for grievances.

“How long should we continue to learn? The answer is as long as you’re in good health, any youthful attitude and energy will let you,” McMaster said.

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Chase Karacostas writes about tourism in Myrtle Beach and across South Carolina for McClatchy. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Political Communication. He began working for McClatchy in 2020 after growing up in Texas, where he has bylines in three of the state’s largest print media outlets as well as the Texas Tribune covering state politics, the environment, housing and the LGBTQ+ community.

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