Fast Track, a $22.2 million proposed statewide grant program, is swiftly on the move in the Missouri House of Representatives, Gov. Mike Parson said Feb. 8 at a workforce roundtable in Springfield.
The governor visited SMC Packaging Group, along with House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, business executives, state officials and Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce representatives to discuss state workforce needs. Stressing that Fast Track is one of the top legislative priorities for his administration, Parson said his office is determined to work with the House and Senate to get the workforce incentive grant legislation across the finish line this session.
“This is moving quickly through the House,” he said, noting the proposal already passed the House Workforce Development Committee and is under discussion in the Senate Education Committee.
Legislation for the workforce incentive program targets individuals ages 25 and older with an average household income of $80,000 or less. The grants aim to assist nontraditional students gain degrees in high-demand fields, such as computer science, health care and advanced manufacturing. Full tuition and fees for up to four semesters are covered by the grants.
At the Statehouse
House Bill 225, proposed by Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, and Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, are both seeking implementation of the grant program. In the bills, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education must designate eligible programs of study by Jan. 1, 2020, which the board will review and update annually.
Parson said Fast Track is designed to help meet state workforce needs by boosting post-secondary educational opportunities for adults.
“The simple reality is post-secondary education is required for many jobs in the 21st century,” he said. “We have fallen behind here in Missouri preparing our people for the demands of the workforce.”
Zora Mulligan, Missouri Department of Higher Education commissioner, who also attended the roundtable, said the Fast Track program would need to cast a wide net to make a real difference. It’s estimated to reach 16,000 post-secondary students across the state.
“You really need programs that have the ability to reach an entirely new population, and we believe adults are going to be really key to that,” she said.
Mulligan said the financial impact could be significant, noting program participants who make $30,000-$40,000 a year potentially could have annual earnings reach $50,000-$60,000 after earning a certificate through Fast Track.
“It’s a different quality of life with a different level of opportunity for you and for your kids,” she said.
Robin Robeson, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Guaranty Bank, attended the roundtable, representing her employer and the Springfield chamber as its board chairman-elect.
Robeson said banks, like many industries, are struggling to find qualified people to fill positions, noting Guaranty Bank currently has an opening for a video teller requiring the employee to interact with electronic equipment to fulfill functions of the job.
“That does require a different skill set than a traditional phone operator or front-line teller,” she said. “The person has to be able to operate as both a teller and be able to operate the technology to use the equipment – and have great customer service.”
Higher-level technical skills, particularly with information technology jobs, are among those to address in today’s workforce development climate, Robeson said.
“On the IT side, I know that’s an area lots of businesses struggle with, especially here in Springfield,” she said, citing regional competition for employees with companies such as Cerner Corp. (Nasdaq: CERN) in Kansas City. “We really struggle as a bank with being able to compete to hire people with really strong IT skills.”
SMC Packaging Group CEO Kevin Ausburn said attracting, training and retaining employees is top of mind for him and many other employers. As a result, he said SMC, which employs 475 companywide and about 300 in Springfield, emphasizes internal promotions.
“When we find a good employee and they have potential, we’re moving them up through the ranks of our organization quicker than we would have in the past,” Ausburn said. “They’re getting into positions that in years past might have taken three years. Well, they’re getting there in six months now because it’s just so tough to find quality people.”
Despite that challenge, he said the Springfield-based company last year had a 13 percent revenue bump over 2017. That equated to revenue of about $129 million in 2018 manufacturing corrugated packaging, protective shipping cartons and packaging supplies with satellite offices in Kansas City, Conway, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. The company also is in the midst of an estimated $17.9 million expansion project at the vacant former Watts Radiant plant in Partnership Industrial Center.
Ausburn said he’s hopeful about the prospects for Fast Track.
“I think it’s really targeted toward a segment of our employee group, a segment of our population that really needs some help and assistance,” he said.
Noting average production employee pay last year was around $19.50 per hour, Ausburn said additional education and training that Fast Track participants receive would factor into future compensation.
Parson said he’s pleased with the feedback from Missourians about Fast Track and the attention it’s garnering at the Statehouse. However, he stopped short of making any predictions about how soon the bills could come up for a vote by legislators.
“It’s something we can implement in a short period of time,” he said. “If we can get it through the legislative process, we can possibly sign that bill early. … And I think you’re going to see it move very quickly through the legislative process.”
Robeson said it’s needed from a competitive standpoint.
“We’re going to be left behind if we don’t do something,” she said. “If we don’t think we’re in competition with other states for jobs and for people actually wanting to live there, we’re kidding ourselves.”
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