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Where have all the workers gone?

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.   

Comments 1 Rating: Be the first person to rate this post.
Kathy Bertrand JUNE 23 2017
Excellent article, Shad. Good information and great to know that our Chamber is taking an active role in not only identifying the issues, but also in attempting to find ways to assist both employers and job seekers and finding some mutual ground. Thanks for your research and insight.

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