Economic development chief declares Missouri ‘open for business,’ talks looming challenges

“Missouri is open for business,” Rob Dixon said, and the state is looking to improve its appeal as a destination for companies to set up and grow. That was part of the message delivered by Dixon, director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, in his keynote speech Tuesday at the Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Conference.

Dixon began his talk by touting Missouri’s unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, its lowest level since 2000, and Boone County’s unemployment rate of 2.2 percent. Missouri created 30,000 jobs in 2016, Dixon said, and saw growth in sectors including manufacturing, and leisure and hospitality.

Over the last year, he added, the Department of Economic Development has attracted 6,000 jobs and $1 billion in capital investment across the state.

Dixon also boasted of Missouri’s diverse economy. “All of our eggs are not in one basket,” he said.

He did, however, address looming challenges. Automation eliminating jobs is a concern, Dixon said, and Missouri must work to prepare students for jobs that my not exist yet. Lack of access to broadband in rural areas remains a problem, Dixon said, with 1.25 million Missourians currently unable to access high-speed internet. He called increasing access a “top priority.”

Dixon touched on recent high-profile recent economic development efforts by his office. He enthusiastically called attention to steel producer Nucor’s plan to open a facility in Sedalia. He also addressed the Hyperloop, the high-speed transit system Missouri hopes to attract. Dixon’s department views the project as “much closer than we might have thought,” he said. The idea that Hyperloop One, a California company, will build a route connecting Kansas City to St. Louis is “not far from reality,” he added.

Beyond Dixon’s keynote, the event also featured a panel discussion about links between education and the workforce. Panelists Peter Stiepleman, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, and Caitlin Codella, senior director of policy and programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce, stressed the importance of teaching students job skills at a younger age.

Codella said there is a mismatch between skills in the workforce and those required by in-demand jobs. Focusing on skills development earlier would help address this, she said.

Stiepleman discussed the merits of high school internships and wondered what more workforce training for students would mean. “What if we create this experience where they are actually working?” Stiepleman said.

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