A few months ago, the St. Louis region sought to be among the top contenders in a national competition for Amazon’s second headquarters location. It failed to make the list. It also learned some harsh lessons.
Scott Drachnik, director of St. Charles County’s Department of Workforce and Business Development, and his counterparts throughout the St. Louis region are doing a post-mortem on the Amazon process. That’s important because indications are that Apple and other companies may be seeking new facilities.
“They [Apple] don’t want to do a big cattle call like Amazon,” Drachnik said. “One of the lessons we discussed, when all the economic development people were together, was that we pursued the Amazon thing as if it was a real estate deal and it wasn’t. It was a people deal.
“We used to say ‘location, location, location.’ Then, ‘incentives, incentives, incentives.’ Now, it’s ‘workforce, workforce, workforce.’”
Drachnik noted that 3 percent of recent college degrees in the region were in computers and math; 18 percent were in business. When compared with information technology, twice as many students graduated with degrees in literature, liberal arts and communications.
“That’s got to be a factor, that a company [like] Amazon would look at and say ‘wait a minute, I don’t see the graduates or the programs turning out [graduates] we can use down the road.’ The talent pipeline worked against the region,” Drachnik said.
Still, the job news in recent years has not been bad.
St. Charles County’s unemployment rate was as low as 2.9 percent last year, the lowest among counties in the St. Louis region. But many of those jobs are part-time in restaurants and retail and generate relatively low incomes.
“We’re creating the wrong kind of jobs for the type of community we are and the kind of success we want for our kids,” Drachnik said.
The jobs that often lead to the desired success are skilled jobs that require a bachelor’s or higher degree and have wages that start at $48,000 or more. Examples of those positions include computer system analysts, mechanical engineers, civil engineers and web developers. There has also been a job creation boom arising from new technology that requires skilled workers. A major emphasis also has been placed on increasing employment in mid-skilled jobs – welders, carpenters, machinists – which call for specialized training and provide higher wages and benefits but which employers say are hard to fill these days. Societal changes may play a role.
The struggle to find better employees
Manufacturing is alive and well, Drachnik said, a billion dollar per year industry in St. Charles County – a larger industry than local government, public education, and healthcare. For years, young people have been sent to college rather than into the skilled labor workforce. Now, that workforce is in decline.
The employment situation is the result of a “massive transformation not just in St. Charles County but in Missouri and its a global phenomenon, Drachnik said. “A perfect storm,” he said.
Millennials entering the workforce often have different interests and career goals, Drachnik said. Young people, who in some cases can stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, are taking longer to get married and can take longer to finish college.
At the same time, there are 100,000 baby boomers expected to retire each day for the next decade.
“People are scrambling to fill all the jobs from which people are retiring or that have been created [by emerging technologies],” Drachnik said. He added that it’s a tight labor market that is skewed toward workers with skills and experience.
Drachnik likes to quote Orchard Farm School Superintendent Tom Muzzey, who said, “People need to realize we’re not training the students in St. Charles County for $12 to $15 an hour jobs.”
“What he meant by that was with robotics, with STEM, with coding, with Project Lead the Way, with Singapore math, with internships, with all those things they [students] are not leaving and going out and looking for a job in a warehouse or retail or at a fast-food restaurant,” Drachnick said. “They’re anticipating being an entrepreneur. They are anticipating being a computer wizard or high-tech medical worker, that sort of thing.”
In the last decade, there has been an obvious emphasis on STEM education – science, technology, education and math. “I think it has gotten down to the middle school level,” said Barbara Kavalier, president of St. Charles Community College [SCC]. The result may be increased workforce readiness.
An impetus for this movement is the 2014 Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, designed to build stronger bridges between workforce, education and business. Drachnik described it as more and better partnerships, communications and collaborations to “emphasize career pathways to pursue the American dream.”
Kavalier noted that St. Charles County may be leading the way regionally in STEM education.
“Many middle school students, for example, have what’s called a Raspberry, a little computer device that allows them to learn basic coding. That’s pretty incredible I think,” she said. For its part, SCC is building bridges with public schools throughout the county to increase workforce development and job possibilities.
“We’re fortunate because we have a very strong and rigorous science and math program here,” Kavalier said. “[We’re] well positioned to meet the needs of STEM education in the county.”
When Kavalier was hired about a year and a half ago, community business leaders told her that the college needed to expand its workforce and technical programs, that there was a “significant shortage of middle-skilled jobs that require some college but not a degree.”
As a result, she said SCC has made certificate and non-credit training a priority. The college also has stepped up its course offerings. The purchase, in 2016, of the 28-acre former Barat Academy campus in Dardenne Prairie allowed the college to expand its nursing and allied health care programs. Additionally, it has expanded its welding program, and Kavalier said SCC is in the process of developing a new agricultural program. There are “so many issues that fall under that umbrella,” she said, “from food production to organic farming to technology to GIS and culinary training.”
According to Kavalier, SCC also may create new training programs, such as an affordable culinary arts training needed by restaurants. For students and employers, the demand is real. Each semester, the college has an enrollment of about 7,000 students who take credit courses and about 20,000 individuals each year who take workforce courses.
Drachnik sees the same need. His department works closely with both the community college and businesses. It also maintains a website [stlcc.edu/workforce] that features job listings and information for both employers and job seekers. Additionally, it hosts about 130 job fairs each year, some of which are at locations outside the region and occasionally outside the state. Social media also plays a role in contacting prospective students/future employees, he said.
During the recession, as many as 800 to 1,000 people per day came through the door at the county’s Missouri Career Center. That number is down to 800 to 1,000 per month and not all of those candidates are workforce ready.
Drachnik and Kavalier say one of the issues is that parents often want their child to get a degree and may frown on courses that teach skills that could lead to a manufacturing or middle-skill job.
“I would say the majority of students are still traditional with hopes of receiving their associate’s degree and transitioning to the university or coming here to complete their general education core requirements [before] transferring,” Kavalier said. “That’s still the largest population now.”
But there’s so much more to learn.
Developing the right skills
A funny thing happened on the way to finding perfectly qualified employees. Business leaders realized that even job candidates who have all the right technical skills and training might lack “soft skills.” In other words, they may have a poor work ethic or can’t write well or have poor math skills. Some may not be able to get along with fellow workers or don’t learn new skills well.
One recent survey listed “a lack of soft skills” as among the top issues organizations encounter in seeking qualified employees.
“It was literally people not knowing how to shake a hand, look you in the eye, show up on time, hold a conversation – just silly things so easy to fix,” said Chris Seyer, chief executive officer for Seyer Industries, a St. Peters company that specializes in higher-level assemblies for aerospace and maritime industries. The company has been around since 1957 and is now navigating workforce changes.
Seyer said the lack of soft skills seems to be generational and more common to millennials, but Drachnik said there are “40-, 50- and 60-year-olds who can’t take direction or don’t have good work ethics.” Both men agree that finding the right employee takes work.
In the next five years, Seyer Industries plans to invest $25 million into the company and add 125 jobs. It hires highly trained machinists.
“We’re hiring skilled labor, we’re not looking for $9 an hour folks,” Seyer said. Wages at his company start at $15 to $16 per hour.
Seyer said his company historically had worked closely with area technical schools to fill job openings, but in the last two years, more than half of his new hires have come from an employee referral program that reaches into other companies.
“If we’re looking for a skilled machinist, someone who is going to operate a $1 million piece of equipment, we obviously want them to have machinist skills,” Seyer said. Still, he said the company hires “a person more than the skill.”
“We can train them in the skills,” he said. To that end, Seyer and other local manufacturing companies are embarking on an apprenticeship program.
State and federal funding allows companies to accept apprenticeship candidates who work at a company and in a classroom as part of a program that, if successful, garners them a certificate upon completion and a full-time job.
Seyer said his company is looking into an apprenticeship opportunity where high school students would work at the company two days a week and get classroom training three days a week with full-time employment in the future.
The program is modeled after apprenticeships offered at German manufacturing companies. The German model is tough, accepting about 25 students from 9,000 applicants. “It’s harder to get into than Harvard,” Seyer said.
The program also allows students to go on to take other college courses after completing their apprenticeship. From Kavalier’s point of view, that’s a very good thing.
“An educated society lifts everyone up,” she said. “I think there is value in students learning about critical thinking. I think there is value in students understanding history and political science and how government works,” Kavalier said. “I think there is value in students being able to write and speak and deliver presentations. Those are skills that transfer to any job and make for a better society. Education also contributes to equity and social justice.”
Drachnik agrees that continued learning is the answer to continued employment.
“It used to be ‘go get a business degree and you would be fine,’” Drachnik said. “That’s not the way the world is now.”