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CEO Roundtable: Workforce Development

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Each month, we gather around the table with a different group of Springfield business leaders to discuss industry trends, workforce and company operations. Join us as we get a behind-the-scenes look into our business community from the C-suite. Now available as a podcast, the full discussion is at SBJ.net/CEORoundtable.

Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple discusses the labor force participation rate, access to child care, skilling up workers and tapping into hidden talent with Andy Hedgpeth, vice president of human resources for CoxHealth; Ericka Schmeeckle, interim director of Workforce Development for the city of Springfield; and Matthew Simpson, chief research and governmental affairs officer for Ozarks Technical Community College.

Christine Temple: Let’s start with maybe an easy question, which is taking the temperature of our job market and our workforce in this area.
Matthew Simpson: Looking at it from the education side, I’d characterize the job market as still running very hot. Obviously, unemployment in our area is still incredibly low – oftentimes comes in below 2%. We continue to see in many sectors, especially in the trade sectors that we educate for, that job postings exceed the available job candidates. I’d say hot, a tight market and one where we need to continue to draw in talent.
Andy Hedgpeth: From a health care perspective, the market is still hot. We’ve been at sub 3% for a few years now, and it seems to keep ratcheting up. There are a number of jobs that are available; we just need to get more people moving in the workforce.
Ericka Schmeeckle: We’ve seen a decrease in traffic coming into the Job Center. Interestingly, last week we held a job fair, and for the first time since before the pandemic, we saw 153 job seekers coming in. Maybe there is going to be an increase.
Temple: Let’s talk about the labor force participation rate. We’ve seen about 3 million fewer workers across the United States since just before the pandemic, in February 2020, compared to now. Our current labor force participation rate is 62.6%, which helps understand a little bit of that high number of jobs, low number of job seekers. Does that rate have to boost in order to ease some of this crisis that we’re facing, or are there other answers?
Simpson: The labor force participation rates are something that we monitor closely at the college as one of the key economic indicators for the region and workforce needs. If you look at our rate, it is below the state average for our (metro area), it’s below the national average. Getting that increased is a component, but if you kind of dig into why that rate is lower than other areas, some of it is things that we can’t necessarily probably influence. One of the areas where we are well below the national average is in our labor force participation rate for the higher age groups. That’s, I think, a factor of having Branson, having areas that are draws for retirees. Probably there’s not much that we can do that’s going to change their decisions. The other group, though, where we lag significantly behind the nation is in female labor force participation between roughly the ages of 20 and 40. There are factors that influence those decisions. One of the biggest factors is child care. I think you have to take a two-pronged approach. I think that we can increase the labor force participation – that can be a part of the solution – but it’s probably not the only part of the solution. We really need to be drawing in workers from outside of the area. We see a lot of interest in people wanting to take classes and attend college or university in southwest Missouri. We draw a lot of students at OTC and down the road at Missouri State and Drury and Evangel from St. Louis, from Kansas City, from mid-Missouri, and so making sure that we are continuing to draw those students in and keep them once they’re here, that can expand our pool.
Hedgpeth: I’m going to give you the old standby HR “yes and no.” I think there are a few things going on. We certainly have an aging workforce. Even looking at the hospital pre-pandemic, we’ve lost about 1,500 of our remaining boomers in the workforce. We’re down to about 500. We don’t have a large contingent coming up behind them. We know as well, and I’m sure this is on OTC’s radar, there is a population cliff coming for high school students in Missouri in the next seven years. Maybe not as pronounced in southwest Missouri because we’re still growing, but across the state you’ll see that the number of kids graduating out of high school is going to drop. The other contingent that we have is trying to figure out how we can do more with the people that are already in the workforce. You see programs like Skill Up that have been really successful, especially in our region. I think OTC has done a fantastic job with that. Our Job Center continues to do really good work partnering with us to try to skill folks up. We’re going to have to leverage automation where we can to put people back in roles that are still very hands-on and are not automatable. You still have to be able to feed patients. You still have to be able to do rehabilitation with patients. AI isn’t going to solve that problem, but there are going to be some solutions out there that AI can address for us.
Schmeeckle: Looking forward over the next few years, yes, automation will address some of these issues, but in that meantime, in this gap, what can employers do? A lot of that is expanding who they would formally not be looking at as a hirable population. Looking at those individuals with differing abilities, looking at those individuals with a background. We do a lot of work with our reentry population. A lot of our bigger, more recent grants are working not only with people once they get out of prison, but while they’re in prison. We’re seeing employers being willing to do hiring events inside prison. At our most recent one, every participant there left with a job opportunity, up to four per person. The employers that were speaking were like, this is something that we would’ve never considered before. So, looking at those other options while we’re waiting on automation to catch up with the workforce need is what we’re working with employers on right now.

Excerpts by Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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