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Bill Smillie, from left, Mary Ann Rojas and Cynthia Collins help connect businesses with employees.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
Bill Smillie, from left, Mary Ann Rojas and Cynthia Collins help connect businesses with employees.

2019 Economic Impact Awards Business Advocate of the Year: Ozark Region Workforce Development Board

Ready to Work

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Low unemployment rates and a growing economy create a real challenge for local employers. How does a business grow without access to the right workforce?

“There’s definitely a shortage in terms of the number of workers available. Employers don’t have that large of a pool to draw from with available workers,” says Mary Ann Rojas, the city’s director of Workforce Development and the Missouri Job Center.

“The common denominator is a lack of necessary skills.”

Rojas and 27 volunteers on the Ozark Region Workforce Development Board are actively working to fill the pipeline of workers to support economic expansion for the local community – and they’ve found education and access to be the key.

Those priorities are informed by the Missouri Job Center’s annual MOmentum State of the Workforce Survey, which found among the 500-plus business leaders surveyed that 40% were planning to hire full-time employees and 67% were having difficulty filling positions.

That’s where the Workforce Development Board steps in.

“We’re a central hub for employers to use to reach applicants,” says Rojas.

Last year, she says the Missouri Job Center partnered with over 500 businesses to conduct 189 hiring events attracting nearly 4,400 job seekers. It also graduated 225 people from its 18-month old Change One Thousand workforce development program, which addresses soft skills in an eight-day program in partnership with Bryan University.

“Believe it or not we do have individuals who have those technical skills (but) lack those soft skills. That puts a hamper on career progression,” Rojas says.

“The whole focus of Change One Thousand is on emotional intelligence, self awareness and building confidence.”

The Workforce Development Board was established in 1998 to support businesses through education and training. Today, it continues that mission in Christian, Dallas, Greene, Polk, Stone, Taney and Webster counties by working through the Missouri Job Centers in Springfield and Branson. Under the U.S. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the governing board must have a minimum of 51% business owners and chief executive or operating officers, as well as local representatives of education, economic development, labor, government and community organizations.

“Their charge is to develop a strategic plan for workforce development for the region,” Rojas says.

Another pillar of the board’s strategy is growing the pipeline of future job seekers by engaging students still in school. Rojas says Build My Future, a partnership with the city, Home Builders Association of Greater Springfield, Springfield Contractors Association and other industry and economic development partners, hosted over 2,700 high school students from across the state for the event in April.

“It gives students an opportunity to give jobs a test run,” Rojas says. “From bricklaying to operating a backhoe.”

She says there’s single one answer to growing the local workforce; rather it’s a combination of initiatives and programs that will support local employers as they grow.

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