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Missouri labor shortage spurs call to action

Missouri labor shortage spurs call to action

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Ranken Technical College

FILE PHOTO: Tyler Chavers, a student welder at Ranken Technical College, works on a piece of metal during class at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Photo by Austin Steele, asteele@post-dispatch.com

Missouri has a severe labor shortage, and it could get worse.

That’s the sobering lesson of Workforce 2030, a new report commissioned by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. The chamber hired Gallup to survey 1,000 employers, whose responses were pretty gloomy.

Just 44 percent were satisfied with the availability of skilled workers in the state. Only 30 percent agreed that Missouri attracts top talent, and a mere 14 percent think the state’s high schools are preparing students for the workforce.

One unnamed CEO summed up the problem with this statement: “Unless somebody does something soon, we won’t be able to grow in Missouri.”

In reality, change is needed from a lot of somebodys, from government agencies to schools to businesses themselves. The report ends with 31 action items, from providing better career information in middle school and high school to developing a marketing campaign aimed at in-demand professionals.

The length of the to-do list illustrates how big and complex the problem is, report author Ted Abernathy says. He is managing partner at Economic Leadership, the Raleigh, N.C., firm the chamber hired to do the study.

Missouri is not alone in worrying about its workforce, Abernathy said, but some problems are worse here than elsewhere.

A big one is the looming shortage of young, skilled workers. Missouri had 3 percent fewer 25- to 44-year-old residents in 2016 than it had in 1990.

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The overall population trends aren’t good either. Missouri’s labor force, which is the number of people working or actively job hunting, shrank by 0.4 percent last year. That’s not an attractive number to a company deciding where to put a new plant or office — or to a Missouri employer wondering if it can grow.

“In Missouri, the ability to attract the types of workers with the right sets of skills is an acute problem,” Abernathy said. “The pool is not big enough. We don’t have enough people.”

The Chamber says this year’s Legislature took several positive steps, from creating a certification for computer science teachers to appropriating $3 million for three adult high schools that will open this fall.

The schools in St. Louis, Poplar Bluff and Springfield will be operated by MERS Goodwill. They’re aimed at the 454,000 adult Missourians who lack a high school diploma. Students will have the chance to earn that diploma while also working toward career-oriented certificates.

“If you want to expend the number of qualified people, the absolute best way to do it is to make sure you are more inclusive of the people you already have,” Abernathy said.

In the same vein, the Missouri Department of Corrections has won praise for a program that administers ACT WorkKeys tests to inmates a few months before they are released. The program has a high pass rate, says Shelle Jacobs, the department’s re-entry coordinator.

“It tells employers they can read, they can write and they have cognitive skills to be a productive employee,” Jacobs said.

A couple of new programs, though, aren’t enough to fill the huge gap between the workforce Missouri employers want and the one they’re likely to get. Closing the gap, the report says, will require years of coordinated effort by companies, educators and politicians.

The report sets an aggressive deadline, too. The year in the title, 2030, is when this spring’s kindergarten graduates will finish high school. The workforce of the future is already being formed, and Missouri desperately needs to get it right.

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