The U.S. unemployment rate is currently 4.7%, nearly the lowest we’ve experienced in the last 50 years. In addition, the U.S. labor participation rate peaked near the year 2000 and, as more baby boomers retire, has been falling ever since. Ultimately there are just fewer people looking for jobs. Locally, this challenge is even more acute as our unemployment rate hovers around 4%.

In addition, 76% of full-time employees are actively looking for a job or open to new opportunities. The average tenure of an employee is now 4.6 years and dropping. Millennials actually clock in at just 2 years on a given job.

This perfect storm has resulted in one of the most challenging workforce environments employers have ever experienced. And unfortunately, these aren’t the only employment issues facing us today.

The “gig economy” is changing the face of work in the U.S. Currently around one-third of workers are doing part or all of their work from home. This number is expected to rise, with many sources predicting that 40% of our workforce will be freelance in the coming years.

We are no longer just competing for employees with our neighbors. More and more talented individuals will have opportunities to work for companies and live where they want, including southeast Missouri. I know several people living in our community and working remotely for companies outside our region.

Many people also cite the changing generations as a challenge. There’s much information out there on millennials. For instance, it’s reported that this generation has three times the number of narcissistic personality disorder diagnoses as the baby boomer generation. Conversely though, this is the most educated and tech-savvy group of workers we’ve ever known. Bottom line is this, millennials now make up the largest portion of our workforce and the things they value in a workplace are different than those before them.  

None of this is easy. Shortage of available workers, increased competitiveness for talent, changing views of work…businesses are facing workforce challenges they never imagined they would face.

Moving Forward

I think there are really two ways to look at this. First, what can businesses do to better recruit and retain workers in today’s environment?

There are many examples of businesses being flexible and creative in response to workforce challenges. Here are just a few:

  • Companies are paying more attention to creating attractive work environments. This isn’t just happening on the coast. You can find many examples right here in our community. A quick internet search will give you tons of ideas, but a word of caution: putting a ping pong table in the corner doesn’t change your culture. It takes committed and consistent effort to build an attractive environment.
  • I’ve talked with several companies that are changing the way they hire. Where they once searched for skilled individuals, many are now seeking to hire unskilled and train internally.
  • Companies are being forced to review their HR policies. For instance, many companies out there are moving to more lenient policies regarding unexcused absences, simply because they aren’t able to fill the vacancies. 
  • Some businesses have had success hiring ex-offenders who are coming out of prison. In efforts to reduce recidivism, the State will play an active role with any business who is willing to hire these individuals, many of whom are happy to get another chance and eager to show up and work hard. Here’s some more info on Missouri’s DOJ re-entry program:

There are many, many more examples out there. Of course, not every approach will work for all businesses. It’s really about taking a deeper look at the things you are doing and truly questioning what is critical and what is not. Then experiment. Depending on your industry, this may not be a completely solvable challenge, but I will say that I’ve talked with companies in most industries in our region that are not having problems finding and retaining good people. It can be done.

Second, there are a number of things the community is doing to help better train and prepare individuals for the workforce.

Many of our local educational institutions are well aware of the workforce challenges and they are taking important steps to help solve the problem. We’ve been in constant communication with area school districts, technology centers, community colleges and universities among others. And I can say without question that they’ve heard the business community loud and clear when they scream “we need better soft skills!” They are all devoting more time focusing on ensuring their graduates are able to function properly as a part of today’s workforce.

Additionally, the Chamber and other partners are working on several programs such as becoming a Work Ready Community, job shadowing programs with University students, improving the public perception of manufacturing jobs, attracting talent to our region and a community-wide effort to improve soft skills. Some initiatives are well established. Others are still being developed. Perhaps one of the more exciting programs recently is LaunchCode, a 20-week training that teaches students computer programming. Put on by Codefi, there were 18 graduates in the first cohort, representing a 47% graduation rate, which is very high when compared to similar trainings. However, the best way to show the impact of this program is to share one of the real stories from the class.

One of the students was actually hired into a full-time coding position before the class ended. Prior to LaunchCode, he lost his job and decided to stay home with his young child. His wife supported the family making only $900 monthly. This young man is now making more than $40,000 a year. This along is an incredible story, but I think it goes much deeper.  A local business was able to find an employee, trained locally, in an in-demand field, that will help the company grow. And when the company grows, there may be openings for more skilled employees. This is exactly the kind of work that will help push our community forward.

In order for our existing companies to grow and new companies to choose our region, we must keep improving our workforce. In fact, in a recent meeting with several site selectors who represent major companies in their search for new locations, they unanimously said that workforce is the biggest issue facing their companies.

All this being said, I’m extremely optimistic about our prospects moving forward. We in southeast Missouri are a hard-working people. We want to make our own way, carve our own path and we are anxious to learn and grow. With renewed focus on workforce and a better story to tell about our community, the future is very bright.   

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Chamber Membership

The Cape Chamber has approximately 1,500 representatives with nearly 1,000 area business members. We are one of the top five largest Chambers in the state of Missouri. John Mehner, President and CEO for the last 25 years, is one of the most respected Chamber leaders in the State. 

We have approximately 300 business leaders attending First Friday Coffee every month and more than 100 attending business after hours monthly. I’ve talked to many Chambers and very few of them has this level of attendance.  

Additionally, the Cape Chamber is highly involved in so many other important activities in our community. Whether it is working with existing businesses to grow, playing a lead role in tackling community workforce challenges, leading the women’s network or even working with the Missouri legislature to support pro-business legislation, the Cape Chamber continues to be involved in innovative activities that help businesses grow.

I don’t say this because I work for the Chamber, I work for the Chamber because of all these things. Over the years, this organization has grown into a powerful force, supporting businesses and their leaders in ways many Chambers can’t. We can thank the vision of hundreds of individuals for pushing to strengthen our Chamber. Hopefully those of us fortunate enough to be employed there today can continue serving the business community well for years to come. If you know any business that isn’t a member and you think they might benefit, let our office know and we will reach out. Call 335-3312 or email

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Tales From The Top

Last week the Chamber Young Professionals had our annual tales from the top event. Three incredible area leaders spoke to our group and shared some great stories and advice. Here is a very SMALL taste.

The first speaker was Brian House, owner of Chick-fil-A in Cape. Anyone who’s even driven by his business knows he’s had success. Brian says the most important thing is the people, saying “I get to know my team and I invest in them.” This strategy has helped him create an incredible culture where team members extend that caring attitude to the customers. As Brian said, you can go anywhere and get a chicken sandwich, but the “handshake of the host improves the taste of the roast.”

Our next speaker was Abbie Crites-Leoni, U.S. Magistrate Judge. She has long been a fighter for law and justice. She says, “you have an opportunity on this earth to do something great.” Abbie shared some excellent advice with the group: “It’s important to say yes, but make sure you have a limit on it because time is the most precious resource we have as human beings.”

Finally, Dwain Hahs, the mayor of Jackson, spoke about his extensive business background with Bausch and Lomb, where he led a team of around 7,000 people at one point. Mayor Hahs says the best way to address conflict and get people on board is to “communicate, communicate, communicate!” He moved many times throughout his career, living all around the world, and with that perspective, he is very high on the quality of life in Jackson and Cape.

We are fortunate to have incredible people in this community who are willing to be a part of events like this and share their stories. A big thanks to these three and all those who continue to give back to Cape year after year. 

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Right to Work

On Monday, Feb. 6, Missouri became the 28th state to pass Right to Work legislation. Right to Work has long been a controversial issue in Missouri. It nearly became law a few years ago, but the legislature was unable to overturn Governor Nixon’s veto. With the election of a Republican Governor, it was not surprising to see this legislation quickly pass both houses and become law.

In the months since, we have been approached by two manufacturers that currently have operations in other states. They both indicated that since Missouri is set to become a Right to Work state, they would like to open another facility in the Cape Girardeau area. We are still in early stages of this recruitment process, but this could potentially bring hundreds of jobs to our region.

For those of us in economic development, Right to Work has always been a competitiveness issue. It’s impossible to know how many businesses passed us up over the years simply because we couldn’t check that box. And we’re encouraged to see that hurdle moving behind us. 

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Entrepreneurship in Cape

Cape’s future economy will rely heavily on entrepreneurship. Fortunately, when I speak with other small metro market leaders, it’s clear this is one area where we really shine. Cape has a rich history of entrepreneurs. Today, the heartbeat of that activity is in the Marquette Tech District and nothing exemplifies this more than the 1st50k Startup Competition.

Since 2015, there have been four winners chosen from over 250 applicants representing 31 states and 39 countries. Edible Education, one of the recent recipients, now based out of Codefi, went on to win the Delta Challenge pitch competition and is projected to hit $1 million in sales this year. They have also added to the team retired White House chef, Quincy Jackson, who served under Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton.

All the applicants and recipients are very impressive, but what really sets us apart is the incredible group of individuals who have come together to create the entrepreneurial ecosystem.  Our culture of entrepreneurship has been built by entrepreneurs themselves, many of whom are choosing to take time away from successful businesses to be a part of it. They see a future most don’t yet see and believe Cape can play a substantial role. And I believe they’re right.

The fourth round of the 1st50k competition is currently underway. Applications must be submitted by May 31. Pitch Day is planned for July 28 as the finale of the second annual TechWeek. 

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Retail in the Region

The cities of Cape and Jackson recently came together to hire a retail consultant. The reports are in and we are moving on to the next phase. Today, I want to share a few items from the Cape Girardeau report.

As a part of the market analysis, Cape’s Primary Trade area is defined as a 31-minute drive-time. These are the people who are most commonly shopping in the city. The population for that area is just over 106,000 with a residential purchasing power of $4.6 billion dollars. These numbers are projected to continue growing.

The report goes on to give detailed breakdowns of age, race, educational attainment and more. With this info, they were able to identify known spending patterns of these individuals. Ultimately this leads us to a point where we can understand demand and compare it to supply. For instance, we might see that there is a demand for 200,000 square foot of space in a given retail sector and we currently only have 170,000 square foot of space. This arms us with critical information to recruit in that sector. And that’s what we are doing now. The consultants have generated a list of businesses that best fit the gaps in our market and the recruitment process has begun. We expect to work with several new retailers this year and hopefully score some big wins for the region.

If you are interested in starting a retail business in the Cape Girardeau area, we would be happy to talk with you about the needs of the region.
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We celebrated the official ribbon cutting for a new location of Sign Master on Thursday, April 13.

Founded in 1989 on Broadway, they later moved to their second location on Kingshighway, where they have spent the majority of their time in business.

In 2011 a long-time employee purchased the company from the original owners. This locally owned and operated business has three employees with more than 30 years experience in their industry.

Customer, Lindsey Wagoner had this to say about Sign Master, “they take the time to learn what our brands are, whether it’s Rhodes Convenience Stores, Baristas Coffee Bar or Primo Vino and Cask. They make suggestions on how different signs can complement those brands, enabling us to put our best faces forward.” 
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Hiring Ex-Offenders

There are more than 31,000 people serving time in Missouri state correctional facilities. Ninety-seven percent of them will one day be released.

Here’s a staggering statistic about the population of individuals who leave prison and reenter society: Of those who do not gain full-time employment, 72% return to prison within two years. Of those who DO gain full-time employment, only 27% return to prison within two years. What a telling statistic. Full-time employment plays a major role in whether or not an individual returns to prison.

This is a dangerous and expensive problem, but I believe we can positively impact this problem while working toward solving one of our other challenges. I hear every day from employers that they can’t find the workers they need. With low unemployment rates, it’s important for us to start exploring other ways of finding workers and hiring ex-offenders is one possible solution.

Approximately 80% of prison admissions are for non-violent offenses, meaning many of these individuals pose no greater risk than any other employee. In fact, most ex-offenders are still under some sort of State supervision through the Department of Corrections, so they are compelled to show up and behave. It could really be a win-win and I encourage any business that is having hiring challenges to explore this option.

Let us know if you would like more information at or call 573-335-3312.  

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Women in Business

In the last 30 years, the number of women with full-time jobs in the U.S. has increased by more than 10%, adding $1.7 trillion dollars to the GDP, while the number of women-owned businesses has also grown to 9.1 million. 

Locally, there are approximately 2,400 businesses in Cape County and more than 1,000 of them are owned by women. In line with this, Cape has recently seen a surge in the number of groups and events for women in business.

The Chamber launched the Women’s Network last year which has seen incredible success. They are doing a Power Hour networking event on April 5. United Way has the Women United group, the Flourish Women’s Summit is put on by the Southeast Missourian, Zonta Club has overseen the Women of Achievement for many years, and finally, the University is hosting the Power of Women Luncheon on Wednesday, March 29. I’m sure I have missed others, but the point is, there are many groups and events like this. They are adding so much value to our business community and it’s just really great to see.   

We are actually welcoming a new women-owned business to Cape this week. Brickwood Boutique cuts their ribbon on Friday, March 31, in the Indie House at 605 Broadway. 

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Business leaders and site selectors make decisions about where expansions will occur. Just imagine the number of factors they are considering and the number of locations that might fit. Think about buying a new car…all the options you have when you start. Make, model, color, new, old. Do you want an SUV, do you want a car, V4 or V6, is gas mileage important, is space important…the list goes on and on.

For a business, the list is far greater, they are looking at the cost of building, access to labor, ability to transport goods and many other issues. Internally they will determine what is most important to them so they can eliminate regions. For instance, some businesses may decide cost of building is the most important thing and they simply can’t be in a region that is at a high risk for earthquakes. When we receive the application from that business and check the box indicating our earthquake zone, we are immediately eliminated from consideration. No questions asked and nothing we can do. There are countless things they consider and the Cape area has to line up well with their needs to move to the next stage.

Once we’ve made it through with a business, we sometimes have an opportunity to meet face-to-face. We feel really good at that point because we have a strong community with a lot to offer. In fact, many businesses that decide to move to the Cape area have some sort of tie to the community. They know someone who has spoken highly of the region or they work with a business here. Those connections, connections with all of you, make a real difference in recruiting businesses. It’s all of us who shape southeast Missouri’s story and you never know who is listening.

If you know of any business that is considering moving to the Cape area, we would love to talk with them. Contact us at 335-3312 or

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