Is the area workforce ready for the future? Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson sat down with industry leaders Jim Abramovitz, executive director of Ozarks Technical Community College’s Center for Workforce Development, Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, and Mary Ann Rojas, director of workforce development for the city of Springfield. They talked technology, education and job creation.
Eric Olson: Describe your industry in one word.
Mary Ann Rojas: Fluid.
Jim Abramovitz: Underskilled.
Matt Morrow: Key.
Olson: What industries would do you say need the most help in the skills department?
Morrow: We meet with 150 companies every single year and we’re looking for where maybe there’s some differences and some distinctions, and it is the most universal issue that we have come across in our whole business retention expansion program. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, doesn’t matter what field you’re in. If you’re in health care, you needed 600 nurses in Springfield yesterday. If you’re in manufacturing and you have a plant that needs 200 people, you probably are about 50 short right now. Those are very different skillsets.
Olson: Is this universally the case, or are there some industries that are doing OK?
Abramovitz: I think most need some other skills. Even though they may be manufacturers or may be in health care, they need communication skills, they need math skills, they need problem-solving skills. Those types of things just aren’t coming. The kids now that are getting out of high schools, some end up going to college, they work well with social media, but they don’t work so well with the technical aspects of working a control system on a robotic control machine. And do they want to learn how to do that? I think many of them do, but it’s going to take some internal training that many of the employers are going to have to grow their own people and invest in training to be able to do this.
Olson: Why is this so widespread that there are skills lacking? Is it a generational issue?
Rojas: I don’t think things have changed that much in terms of what employers are looking for. The essential skills have remained, the communication skills, having that ability to be intuitive about changes in the job market. Those just aren’t as prevalent as they used to be. They’ve always been a desired skill. We’ve always expected people to come to work on time; we’ve always expected individuals to take advantage of opportunities and take initiative to kind of chart their own course. A lot of it is due to technology and the generation. We have a generation now that is more interested in working smarter rather than working harder. Whereas for us, you worked a 10-hour day and that’s a good thing. The generation of today thinks it’s more efficient to get the same work done in five hours.
Olson: What are these employers saying about the work ethic and the traits of the workforce here?
Morrow: I have a number of young people, millennials, who work for me and they’re some of the hardest working people I’ve ever had a chance to spend time with. They never, I mean literally, never stop, but they work differently in many cases. You may have a situation where being there right at 8 a.m. and punching out at 5 p.m. does not really agree with that lifestyle real well. There are certain jobs that need that, but I also know I get text messages from people I work with at 11 p.m. at night. Sometimes I wake up at 6 a.m. with a few (text messages). They just don’t stop. We have to identify how to really maximize and take advantage of that strong work ethic even if it looks a little bit different.
Olson: So you’re identifying a shift in eamployers having to deal with that?
Abramovitz: I think there are many millennials who have a strong work ethic and most of them are looking for a fulfilling job – something they can take ownership in, that they feel good about at the end of the day. Many traditional employers are baby boomers, and many of the management people out there still are baby boomers. They need to decide that this is what they’re working with now. If they can get the right people together and mentor these people, they will get an employee they can be proud of and can do their job for them.
Olson: Another historical minded thought is the stainless steel industry here obviously has been strong for many years and carried the workforce. What is the state of manufacturing?
Morrow: I’ll say that after I came back to Springfield two and half years ago, about 7 percent of our jobs were manufacturing jobs. I think now it’s between 8 and 9 [percent], even as the overall job pool has grown as we’ve had more employment opportunities. The mix of manufacturing as a portion of that has continued to grow as well. That said, I will say that on average, it’s like 14-15 percent. I think there’s still room for our manufacturing sector to continue to grow without jeopardizing the diversity of our economy. We’ve got 19 projects of potential economic development expansions or relocations. I want to say 14 or 15 of them are manufacturers.
Rojas: It’s also one of the industries where we have seen more growth percentage year over year and also the wages in the manufacturing industry in this area are among the highest.
Abramovitz: I think many of the manufacturers we work with and train for have indicated to us they have growth potential and have turned down opportunities because they can’t get enough good, qualified, skilled people to do the jobs. That’s going to be an issue for them going forward.
Olson: What industry do you see leading the next half century?
Rojas: I think that might be transportation, logistics, distribution. I mean that’s a really high growth area, too. As we continue to see the changes in the brick-and-mortar retail industry – we’re seeing a lot of closures there – a lot more online purchasing and I think having those distribution hubs is going to provide opportunities for us, too. I think we have some real opportunities to become a regional hub for logistics and manufacturing.
Abramovitz: I was in manufacturing for about 35 year myself, the stainless steel companies, they’re looking at automated equipment to replace the welders and the people who actually lay out the equipment. We do training for their maintenance people because more and more lines are being automated. That’s the direction it’s going, but the level of employees they’re going to need are people who can actually program as opposed to actually doing something on the line. I see that happening in the next five to seven years.
Olson: So the immediate concern would be the loss of jobs.
Abramovitz: That’s right. Right now, they can’t get enough people, but if they can’t get people, they’ll take other options and invest in automated equipment.
Morrow: We’ve always worried about jobs going away when economies transition and develop. Automation has been happening in our economy for easily 100 or more years in a significant way, and with each of those generations, each of those steps, they’ve multiplied new job opportunities and new ways for people to make a good living. I think we see that today, too.
Olson: Are you in favor of increasing the minimum wage as it relates to workforce issues?
Morrow: I’m guessing we’re the only ones who have policies on this.
Rojas: The state of Missouri is one of the states that does have a higher wage, but I’m not in favor of it only because it’s called the labor market for a reason, and the employer and the industry should drive what the wage is. As you get workers that have the skills that are going to be attractive to that industry, then the hope is the industry will organically increase that wage. That’s what we want to see. Of course, having been a small employer myself, I never paid the minimum wage then because I thought it was too low. I think you would find that in a lot of businesses.
Morrow: Minimum wage is a path into the workforce for young people, and I think that’s something we really have to be careful not to lose sight of. It’s somebody working 15 hours a week in the evenings or weekends when they’re not in school and they’re 16 years old. That minimum wage is important because it gives them a path into the workforce and it doesn’t mean that’s where most jobs are or should be. We would like to see our minimum wage as consistent with the federal wage as it can be. We’re higher than the federal right now and I think you have to be careful about that.
Abramovitz: I think the majority of people who work minimum wage are young, entry-level jobs, maybe second or third wage earners in the family who are making a little supplemental funds. These are primarily focused to people with low skills. We need a segment of the economy who can absorb that and give younger people an opportunity to get some experience and to make some money.
Olson: Where does the Greater Ozarks Centers for Advanced Professional Studies fit into that?
Rojas: That’s a huge role. Looking into the future, GO CAPS is one of those programs that’s really going to help us to prepare those young workers, the emerging workforce. That model is just working well in terms of being able to provide them with opportunities and let them see firsthand what the job is about and where that job can take them. I was at a conference recently and GO CAPS was mentioned and so I think it’s a model that works. The concept really has got some legs and can move into other areas.
Morrow: One of the things we’ve seen is it’s important to understand what GO CAPS is and what it isn’t. Young people go through GO CAPS and they still need something else between here and their career. It allows them to test drive some careers. It allows them to get their feet wet and learn about something they might have a passion for and find out if they do and sometimes importantly find out if they don’t. It makes them better consumers of higher education and puts them in a position to where they could really hit the ground running and prepare for their future.
Olson: Are there any advantages our community has in retaining and recruiting high-quality workers?
Morrow: The question is always, “What does the climate look like for my present and future workforce needs? Is there a workforce pipeline?” Those things they need to have assurances of before they’re able to decide where they’re going to be. Right now, one of the biggest challenges we have is the availability of ready space for a variety of different uses. The reason we talk space is because it’s one of the biggest hooks to get companies to visit Springfield. Normally, if they visit here, they end up staying here.
Olson: Is there a percentage that you know of?
Morrow: Well, it’s almost all of them, honestly. It’s very rare that if we get them here to visit that we don’t end up with them staying here. One of the biggest ways to get them here is to have a property that really matches up well with what they envision. What draws companies and what draws jobs is the No. 1 thing we’re talking about: workforce. We’re also talking about the lifestyle of the Ozarks.
Abramovitz: With the younger generation, the revival of the downtown, the condos and the things happening gives them more of a nightlife. They’re more communal; they like to sit around and have a fire and work on their phones and once in awhile talk.
Morrow: Another thing that has had a lot to do with it is the expansion of the educational community. OTC has a presence down there, the expansion and growth of MSU, the campus at Drury, all in that area has created a proximity of a lot of young people. They can see a future in a community where these kind of jobs they might think only exist in the Silicon Valley are here. We don’t have to tell them they’re here; they can just see.
Interview excerpts by Features Editor Emily Letterman, firstname.lastname@example.org, and editorial assistant Barrett Young, email@example.com.
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