After eight months in office, much of it consumed with a busy legislative session, the economic development priorities of Missouri’s new self-styled outsider governor, Eric Greitens, are coming into focus.
Some of the new administration’s policy preferences aren’t surprises from a Republican administration, such as longer-term efforts to reduce income tax rates. Another, reforming Missouri’s huge tax credit programs, is a mainstay of Missouri politics that has been attempted by both Democrats and Republicans in the governor’s mansion and Legislature.
But two other efforts appear to have risen to the top of Greitens’ economic development agenda. He brought them into focus at the annual Governor’s Conference on Economic Development, which drew hundreds of local and state officials from around Missouri to St. Louis last week.
Speaking at the Hilton at the Ballpark downtown Thursday, Greitens announced the launching of a new program, “Skilled Workforce Missouri,” to make it easier for businesses to use Missouri’s workforce training programs. Finding workers with the necessary skills is almost always among the top concerns of business leaders, Greitens told conference attendees.
“We also have Missourians who need jobs, but there’s been for a long time in Missouri a skills gap,” he said.
Through better branding, the state wants to make its workforce development programs more visible to businesses inside and outside of Missouri. And it wants to streamline the programs into a more navigable system.
“There’s going to be a single point of access, a single point of entry,” Greitens said.
The second big push emerged during a whirlwind week where the governor crisscrossed the state to promote businesses planning to tap state incentives that help them add jobs. On Wednesday, a task force Greitens formed in June released its report on how best to help entrepreneurs.
Among dozens of policy proposals in the “Innovation Task Force” report, Greitens’ drew attention to one in particular: the creation of a “Missouri innovation fund.”
Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann, in an interview, described it as “the evolution of the Missouri Technology Corp.”
MTC, which invests in startups alongside private capital and provides grant funding for organizations such as Arch Grants and ITEN, had garnered bipartisan support in recent years and is touted by business leaders for helping to seed the startup communities within the state’s cities.
Greitens faced some criticism over his budget proposal earlier this year to slash MTC funding from almost $23 million to $5 million. In its final budget, the Legislature cut MTC funding even more than that, to $2.5 million.
Now, Greitens’ administration is pushing a plan to sell bonds to refill the MTC fund. Using similar appropriations to make bond payments, Erdmann said bonding authority could provide over $100 million for the innovation fund.
In addition, Greitens’ administration wants to solicit private firms to manage the fund. Private investors, too, would be invited to pool their capital in the fund.
“What the Innovation Task Force brought to us was an idea so we could take what we were already investing, form a new public-private innovation fund managed by private sector leaders, run like a business, not a bureaucracy, to make strategic investments that would help us to launch new startups all over the state,” Greitens said Thursday.
While that idea would need approval from legislators, the other big push, to revamp the state’s workforce development programs, is administrative.
Greitens in June tapped Rob Dixon to lead the state’s Department of Economic Development, which oversees the state’s worker training programs. Dixon is familiar with that world. He most recently led the Missouri Community College Association, representing the institutions that often administer job training programs for the state’s businesses.
Greitens touted Dixon’s work in workforce development when he appointed him, saying “he successfully coordinated major policy changes on behalf of Missouri’s 12 community colleges.”
If Missouri wants to serve companies in the state looking to expand “we have to start moving forward in a different direction,” Dixon said at the conference last week.
In an interview, he described the push as an effort to make the state into a “concierge” service for businesses, helping them to navigate the various training programs instead of handing them applications and telling them “go figure it out.”
“We are not asking for more money, more people,” Dixon said. “We are looking at using what we have more efficiently.”
The other major component is better branding of the workforce training program, with a new website and marketing for the “Skilled Workforce Missouri” initiative. Other states have successfully branded their programs to appeal directly to businesses considering expansion or evaluating sites across the country, he said.
The state would help participating businesses design pre-employment training, screen job applicants and coordinate with community colleges that perform job training.
The push would help companies from outside Missouri or in areas without a strong community college or other job training institution better find the resources available. Dixon said businesses that have existing relationships with community colleges, many of which already work with DED’s workforce training offices, won’t have to change anything. He pointed to the successful partnership between Boeing and St. Louis Community College for worker training as a model the state wants to help facilitate elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to do very similar programs like that all over the state,” Dixon said.