To address the state’s low rankings in a number of economic development areas among its Midwest competitors, four state government agencies are restructuring later this month.
Two officials whose departments will be impacted are influential to the pending changes.
“The structure of our department is a big part of why we’re not as successful as we can be,” said Rob Dixon, Missouri’s Economic Development director since mid-2017.
Recent research shows Missouri dedicates only 4 percent of its Economic Development staff to directly engaging with businesses, while Dixon said the average for other Midwestern states is 31 percent.
In the restructuring, effective March 18 through executive order, the Department of Economic Development will reduce its staff to 177 from the current 865. Dixon said no employees will be laid off, as many will move to other state agencies.
He’s on board with the changes, as is Department of Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan. They both spoke at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Feb. 22 public policy series event.
In Higher Education, the Division of Workforce Development will move under Mulligan’s purview, while her agency also will get the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center – a team of 30 researchers who had studied the state’s economy via the DED.
“Strategically, for us, it’s a tremendous opportunity to just have one set of thought processes that guides how we serve everyone after high school to think about how to get a better job,” she said, adding for some that might mean going to college, while others may pursue apprenticeships or other work-based programs. “I think it means that there will be people who are thinking every day about how to serve the people who are currently being served by higher education institutions.”
During the chamber’s speaker series event, Dixon and Mulligan gave a review of a pair of statewide initiatives, Talent for Tomorrow and Best in the Midwest, launched last year to reshape economic development. Advisory councils of stakeholders statewide have been analyzing performance indicators for economic development and workforce quality.
Information was gathered last summer at statewide workshops, including one in Springfield in July 2018. At the time, Dixon cited the state’s low ranks of 12th out of 14 peer states in workforce production and 11th out of 14 in job growth.
Gov. Mike Parson signed executive orders in January to restructure the DED, DHE, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions, and Professional Registration.
“All the work we did last summer was really part of that,” Dixon said of the restructuring plan.
A Regional Engagement Division within the DED will reassign existing staff to dedicate more statewide resources to business development. At the core, Dixon said staff would be organized around different regions of the state; currently only five people in the department are around the state engaging with businesses. He said that number would soon be bolstered to roughly 40 people.
“They are going to be based in the communities that they’re designed to serve,” Dixon said, noting staff assignments are still being determined.
Also included in the orders are several shifts to better align certain policy areas with other state agencies. The Division of Energy will shift to the Department of Natural Resources. The Public Service Commission and Office of Public Counsel will transfer to the Department of Commerce and Insurance, formerly known as the Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration, and the Missouri Arts Council will operate under the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
Time is now
Two of Parson’s top workforce development priorities, Fast Track and Missouri One Start, are both working through the legislative process, Dixon said.
Fast Track, a workforce incentive grant program, has been approved by the Missouri House of Representatives and is being debated on the floor in the Senate, while Missouri One Start, aimed to assist new and existing businesses with upgrading workers’ skills, was passed by a House economic development committee, he added.
“This whole suite of proposals is meant to address the needs of those folks who for whatever reason are not currently having access to programs to succeed,” Mulligan said.
Chamber President Matt Morrow, who moderated the Feb. 22 event, said passage of the legislation is vital to moving Missouri forward in the workforce development arena.
“Our competitiveness is what’s at stake,” he said. “There are states out there that are beating us and will keep beating us if we don’t move.”
Randell Wallace, managing attorney at Kutak Rock LLP, who attended the chamber event, said restructuring state offices is a pretty radical thought in government. However, he said it’s an opportunity to more effectively promote business and workforce development in the state.
“Everybody needs to be working together to do their share to get this accomplished,” Wallace said.
While Dixon praised the activity of the local chamber and its weekly presence in Jefferson City, he encouraged chamber members to keep the workforce development conversation going with legislators.
“You hear about these issues every single day, and it’s time to do something about them,” he said. “You have to make your voices heard. If you care about these issues – and I know you do – you’re going to have to weigh in on them.”
Dixon said if the state doesn’t take advantage of this moment to improve its stature in the eyes of existing and prospective businesses, he’s uncertain if such an opportunity will come around again.
“It’s kind of a now or never thing,” he said.
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