Missouri Business

There’s a growing sentiment that action is needed on workforce

For as long as I can remember, the conversation about improving Missouri’s economy has largely revolved around a trio of issues: lowering costs, crafting fair regulations and creating growth-based incentives.

When I have met with business leaders around the state, those three topics have typically been what they’ve wanted to talk about. Thus, that’s where the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry has directed the brunt of our advocacy efforts in Jefferson City.

Judging by one recent state ranking by CNBC, we’ve had some success. Missouri’s cost of doing business ranks 11th among the states. We also rank 15th for business friendliness and 17th for cost of living.

However, in recent years the conversations I’ve been having with business leaders have begun to shift to a new concern: Missouri’s workforce. I’ve been hearing more and more that employers are having a difficult time finding the kinds of workers they need. This problem was frighteningly illustrated in 2015 when the Missouri Chamber released the results of our Missouri 2030 Gallup survey.

According to our data — culled from surveys and interviews of more than 1,000 business leaders — fewer than half of Missouri businesses are satisfied with the state’s workforce.

Our survey showed that only 42 percent of business leaders think colleges are adequately preparing Missourians to work. A shockingly low 15 percent of businesses said high schools are doing their job to get students ready for the workforce. If you have been in hiring mode, I know you have experienced at least some of these sentiments.

The comments on our Gallup survey included “there’s no one to hire,” the labor pool is “beginning to erode” and “our current education system is putting out people that don’t have life skills that can be used in today’s business environment.”

Clearly this is a problem. And it’s also not a secret. The same CNBC ranking that said our state is doing well on cost and business friendliness ranked our workforce as low as 48th in the nation in recent years — we’re currently at 38th.

Folks, that’s F-level work.

We can’t overlook the fact that the reasons behind this problem are multifaceted. Some communities in Missouri feel pride in their high-performing school districts, while other communities send their children to districts struggling for accreditation. Many classrooms are led by inspiring, well-trained teachers. But do we have enough high-quality teachers to go around? State budget makers annually tout their commitment to increasing spending on schools and colleges and then annually pass budgets that underfund both.

As part of our Missouri 2030 plan, we greatly intensified our efforts on workforce issues during the 2016 legislative session. The Missouri Chamber added a new lobbyist, Ryan Stauffer, who works solely on education and workforce issues.

While we work toward a statewide solution, the Missouri Chamber also strongly believes that the business community can play an even bigger role in the effort to improve our workforce. Over the last year we’ve launched several new efforts that give employers better tools to engage the local workforce. This is the main thrust of Missouri 2030, and this issue of Missouri Business highlights many of these industry-led efforts.

There is still much more work to do if we are going to turn our workforce statistics around and become a leader in this area. We hope you join us in this effort.

If you want to talk about the workforce needs in your community, please don’t hesitate to contact me.