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By Amy Susan, Communications Director for Missouri Enterprise

This year, I attended two separate business-related events. At both occasions, the workforce skills gap took much of the focus. Many speakers provided current statistics on the lack of skilled workers in the face of the growing demand from companies.  All agreed - something needs to be done. I know I’m not the only one who feels the weight of the world on my shoulders when the open-ended question “what ARE we going to do about it?” is left on the podium, with no solution in sight.

Now, as I stated in my last article “The Body Gap, and What is Huggies Doing About It”, there is no single right answer or one magical effort that will fix this issue. The solution must take several forms on multiple levels--- with an all hands on deck approach. My last article focused on how manufacturers can do their part. This time, we look at how the government and public organizations are stepping up to tackle this national concern.

At the Missouri Economic Development Council’s (MEDC) winter conference, I was blown away after learning about some of the programs in place that are making huge impacts in their respective communities and industry sectors. Many in Missouri are aware that Branson is considered the entertainment Mecca of the Midwest (and if you didn’t, well you are certainly missing out), with several theaters and venues offering more seats to visitors than Broadway in New York City. The body gap curtain is hanging over this specific industry as well. But like other sectors the show must go on, with or without enough workers to fill the needs of tourists from around the world who continue to book holidays in the greater Branson area. It was shared with the MEDC audience that after hearing desperate pleas from the business community about the workforce issue, the Taney County Partnership jokingly came up with the idea of taking a bus to Puerto Rico and scooping up available workers and bringing them back to Missouri.

Jokes aside, the idea became a tangible option for Taney County. After all, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, too, and businesses need only complete  a few additional government documents to bring Puerto Rican workers on board to help them grow the Show-Me State’s show business in Branson. A recruitment effort was developed including  bi-lingual promotional materials to hand out to the islanders, and in just a few short months, Taney County struck gold. The concept was a perfect fit – it turns out  that Puerto Rico’s down season is Branson’s active season and vice-a-versa, AND that these workers were already trained to work in the tourism industry. The program is now being considered by other states and cities and serves as a proven model of success.

Another program highlighted at the winter conference was one being piloted by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the Missouri Department of Corrections. Agriculture, one of the state’s top industries, is not immune to the workforce gap. In fact, some consider it especially vulnerable to changes and gaps in the workforce. Fewer and fewer high school graduates seem interested in cultivating the land and following in the proud farming tradition of their aging parents or grandparents. Missouri farmers grow an immense amount of  food for international export, and our farms are a vital part of the Missouri Economy. 

To tackle this problem head on, the Missouri Departments of Agriculture and Corrections formed an alliance to offer agricultural work training to offenders approaching release. 

Though this may not be the ultimate and comprehensive answer to fill the agricultural skills and workforce gap, it is certainly innovative, with benefits reaching beyond the farm. To succeed, this approach will need farmers to take a closer look at the prospect of hiring former offenders to fill their critical job vacancies.  If the Agriculture/Corrections Departments’ initiative can produce viable job candidates with the skillsets needed to help fill the demand, there’s a good possibility of three things happening: farmers can benefit from the development of a larger available pool of the skilled workers they need; gainfully employed former offenders could have a significant impact on reducing recidivism rates, and our  communities could become safer and more productive. 

Although this concept might admittedly face some challenges, it’s an out-of-the-box approach, developed in our own back yard, and it only needs a few successes to have a fighting chance of being a part of Missouri’s workforce skills gap solution.

The last program  I would like to highlight as an innovative potential workforce solution is one being led by the folks at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). While attending the last leg of the organization’s 2018 State of Manufacturing Day events in St. Louis, NAM provided insight into a program it is piloting in Fort Hood, Texas, where it  is partnering with the military installation to offer manufacturing training to those in uniform (AND their spouses!!) as they transition to civilian life. No other sector of the workforce deserves a bigger leg up to secure good-paying careers than those that serve our country, and manufacturing offers them great opportunities.

NAM says the program is  already yielding successes, and plans are forming to extend the program to other U.S military bases around the country. (Pssst…Missouri has several major military installations and a thriving manufacturing community. Seems to be a match made in manufacturing heaven and we would be honored to be considered for the program. I will do my best to have our people call their people).

To end, we need to continue to be creative, considering and trying out-of-the-box solutions to help fill critical workforce skills gaps.  I love these three examples because they’re straightforward and potentially practical, and none  are based on technology, AI, or robots. They are viable potential solutions that came out of  our own back yard.