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Opinion: A few keys to address underemployment

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I recently had an opportunity to attend a lunch at the Efactory that was sponsored by the Hawthorn Foundation. I learned the private not-for-profit Hawthorn Foundation has members with expertise to help the state of Missouri’s government become more efficient and effective. I also learned about the Missouri Partnership. This organization has a focus on increasing economic prosperity throughout the state by attracting new jobs and investments to Missouri.

All that is great – but what I found most intriguing was that both organizations are nonpartisan and work to enhance statewide competitiveness. It further aligns what we do in the Springfield community locally, regionally and at the state level to support the work of the state in its aim to increase global business attraction to Missouri. The Missouri Partnership is a public-private economic development organization that is dedicated to promoting Missouri to business audiences around the world.

Gov. Mike Parson spoke at the luncheon about some of the statewide accomplishments that have taken place through private-public partnerships. For example, he indicated over 30,000 new jobs were created in Missouri in the past year. Missouri’s overall unemployment rate is 3.1%, and he shared that in 2015, the unemployment rate for African Americans was over 15%, while this year it is 5.9%. These statistics closely mirror some of the successes we have seen in the Springfield area.

As of August, Springfield’s unemployment rate was 3.2%. In 2015, when the Impacting Poverty Commission created the Call to Action Report, the poverty level was 25.7% for the city and 19% in Greene County. At the end of 2017 – after seeing slight increases by monitoring the U.S. Census American Community Survey report – the poverty level had stabilized back to 25.7%. The ACS report provides five-year estimates. Through these estimates, we have seen a decline in the poverty rate for three of the four subgroups with the highest levels of populations in our community. For example, poverty in our Latino/Latina population had a 4.6% decrease, the black population was down 4.2%, and the white population dropped a slight 0.1%. In the county, the Latino/Latina population had a decrease of 4.2%, the black population was down 2.7% and our white population dropped 0.5%. Our fourth subgroup, the Asian population, has seen an increase of 6.7% in the city and 0.7% in the county.

We have been watching the trends of our subgroups and developing strategies focused on addressing underemployment. The state’s Fast Track program is one of the strategies, because individuals and families move to our community from other countries where they were educated with degrees as educators, engineers, medical professions and other highly skilled occupations, but their credentials are not acceptable in Missouri. When this happens, they take entry-level positions, yet they may be highly skilled.

This is why I believe it’s very important for employers to know their employees’ levels of education and what is needed to complete or obtain a credential. Employers might be surprised to learn the number of employees that can take advantage of programs to complete credentials, earn credentials and become a better asset to their employer and our communities. If Fast Track can cover a portion of the cost to complete credentials, employers can potentially cover the costs of related expenses, such as books, child care and transportation to increase postsecondary attainment.

All of these efforts move the Springfield area closer to a postsecondary attainment goal of 60% by 2025. According to Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation Report, at the end of 2018, Greene County’s postsecondary attainment rate was 40.3%, the state’s was 42.9%, and nationally it was 47.6%. It takes 1,200 individuals to obtain postsecondary credentials to move one percentage point – we can only meet this goal with the assistance of employers.

The state’s focus is still infrastructure and workforce development, and it was nice to learn that in 2018, Missouri was recognized as the No. 1 international investment state in the United States. I know that every person will not always agree on everything related to the focus of the state. However, I am a firm believer that we need to act on those things that we can agree on and celebrate those wins.

Francine Pratt is director of Prosper Springfield, a poverty reduction initiative led by Community Partnership of the Ozarks and United Way of the Ozarks. She can be reached at fpratt@cpozarks.org.

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