With ‘Talent for Tomorrow’ effort, state taps local leaders to address workforce, education issues

In her role as executive director of the Moberly Area Chamber of Commerce, Megan Schmitt said she has seen a decline in qualified workers throughout her city. Despite Moberly being the home of two colleges, Schmitt said, the area has a surplus of technical jobs and not enough skilled workers to fill them.

“New members of the chamber are actually joining not for networking or educational opportunities,” Schmitt said, “but in hopes that the chamber can help them find employees.”

Schmitt joined more than 75 business and education leaders from around mid-Missouri to address workforce issues on Wednesday in Columbia at the Talent for Tomorrow meeting. She said she came to be a part of the solution.

It was the fifth meeting around the state hosted by the Missouri Department of Economic Development and the Missouri Department of Higher Education. The departments estimate that more than 1,100 Missourians participated in the regional meetings, which also took place in Cape Girardeau, Kansas City, Springfield and St. Charles.

At the Columbia event, Rob Dixon, director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, shared some statistics showing the state’s workforce lagging behind other states in the region. He said Missouri ranked 13th of 14 Midwestern states in 2016 for quality and availability of workforce, according to CNBC; 12th in the region for productivity of its workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis; and eighth in the Midwest for number of individuals with an associate degree or greater, according to American Community Survey.

As technology advances and retirees surpass available workers, Dixon said, stakeholders in the state’s economy need to acknowledge and adapt to these trends.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve talked about is no matter if the economy is going well or if it’s in a down cycle, we have to have a workforce system that includes education,” Dixon said. “We have to have that system make it resilient for folks to train for the available jobs today, to learn for those jobs, but also to be ready to adapt and be flexible as the need for technology and skill set needs change over time.”

During a breakout session, leaders from Columbia and surrounding communities were asked why they think the state’s workforce is in its current condition. Many agreed that lack of career-track education has been a major issue. Rural community members said they have seen a population decline as students leave for school and don’t return home to join the workforce.

Gina Lucas, family financial education specialist with University of Missouri Extension, which has offices in counties across the state, believes this is because many students are unaware of the jobs available nearby.

“I think the problem is there’s not a connection between the programs they’re entering and the job that is available right there,” Lucas said. “We have students going into these fields that may be interesting to them. Then they graduate with something like a degree in geology, and there’s no need for a geologist in Maryville.

“We need to make a connection between the students’ field and the opportunities in that community.”

Participants were also asked to consider possible solutions, including raising the education level of all Missourians or training for targeted occupations.

“We’d like to see the language changed on how we train, teach and educate our kids,” said Loretta Schouten, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Zone in Columbia. “Rather than having that tunnel vision of training students for a specific job, how about we train them on transferable skills?”

The state’s departments of economic development and higher education will use the information gathered at the regional sessions to craft a new comprehensive state economic development strategic plan for their Best in Midwest initiative. On Thursday, the departments issued an open call for individuals and organizations to submit ideas online to help shape the state’s Best in Midwest and Talent for Tomorrow strategic planning efforts.

Over the next several weeks, with the help of a volunteer committee, they will develop recommendations to present to Gov. Mike Parson.

“I think there’s a lot of energy and excitement across Missouri,” Dixon said. “There’s a lot of consensus that we need to address these issues. There’s also an acknowledgment that we have to look at these things in a different way, that we can no longer just keep doing what we’re doing because in many ways it’s not working. So it’s time to really turn that around.”

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