Of the estimated 84,000 job vacancies in Missouri last year, about 7 percent were in Greene County, according to survey results recently released by the state Department of Economic Development.

The 2008 Missouri Job Vacancy Survey polled 15,831 employers in 107 of Missouri's 114 counties about the types of unfilled positions they had available last year.

The survey gathered additional information about benefits and incentives offered; education, experience and skills required; competencies important to filling those vacancies; and common shortcomings of applicants.

The 13-question survey - now in its second year - was developed by DED's Division of Workforce Development and the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center in conjunction with the Public Policy Research Center at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The health care and social assistance industries had the highest number of vacancies - 16,845 - in 2008, with registered nurse positions accounting for more than a quarter of the total.

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Missouri is experiencing a 9.5 percent shortage of registered nurses, although 70 percent of nursing schools in the Show-Me State have reported an increase in the number of qualified applicants. Nationally, though, the nursing shortage is expected to reach 500,000 by 2025, according to the New Jersey-based Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.

Carmen Parker Bradshaw, executive director of the newly formed Springfield-Greene County Regional Health Commission, said the Springfield area needs more primary care physicians and behavioral health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as oral health providers who serve a variety of insurers.

Dawn Busick, director of work force development at Ozarks Technical Community College, said allied health and nursing programs at OTC and other schools can't keep pace with the demand. She said OTC recently graduated 24 students from its Associate of Science in nursing program, and that all of them landed jobs straight out of school.

"Health care is an industry that I am worried about," Busick said. "We're going to need to promote this occupation within the high schools and the grade schools and with the parents to entice the students to engage in these (degree) programs."

Filling in the gaps

The accommodation and food services industries had the next-highest number of job vacancies in Missouri last year, according to the survey results. Two of the top three occupations - combined food preparation and waiters/waitresses - accounted for 8,744 job vacancies statewide.

While six in 10 job vacancies were found in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas, the seven-county Ozark region had 6,869 job vacancies in 2008 based on responses from 1,245 employers surveyed.

The majority of the region's job vacancies - nearly 5,500 - were in Greene County, where 966 employers participated in the survey.

Roughly a third of those vacancies were in the health care and social assistance industries. Retail trade had the second-highest number of vacancies at 1,203, and accommodation and food services came in third with 888 vacancies, according to survey results.

The survey also asked employers about common skills gaps encountered when trying to fill job vacancies.

Job candidates should possess "soft skills," such as interpersonal communication, punctuality and good hygiene, as well as "hard skills," such as specific technical training or the ability to acquire and use information.

The top three shortcomings exhibited by applicants are a lack of positive attitude, poor customer service skills and a poor work ethic, according to employers surveyed.

Bill Dowling, director of the Missouri Career Center in Springfield, said the deterioration of soft skills has been a persistent problem for years and one that's not easily solved.

"Soft skills are so hard to train. ... Those are learned," Dowling said. "And it is somewhat a generational thing."

Positive signs

Despite the hiring challenges, employers found applicants who met job requirements either well or very well for nearly half of their job vacancies. Applicants who were well matched for job openings rose to 36 percent in the 2008 survey, compared to 25 percent in the 2007 survey.

The survey also contained some good news for job seekers who possess the necessary skills for employment. According to the survey, 66 percent of employers polled supply on-the-job training and 64 percent offer medical insurance to employees. More than half of employers - 52 percent - also offer employee 401(k) plans, up from 45 percent in the 2007 survey.

OTC's Busick, the former director of the Missouri Division of Workforce Development, said the Job Vacancy Survey is valuable for employers as well as economic developers looking to bring new companies to the Show-Me State. She did, however, note that the survey is not a statistical analysis.

"It's just a snapshot of the regional businesses," she said. "(Work force officials) utilize it to take a look at skills gaps and the numbers of vacancies and which industries are sustaining themselves. It's a useful tool. I'm glad that the new administration decided to continue it."