Thursday, July 31 2014
Companies say it. Site consultants say it. Economic developers say it a lot: A strong workforce is vitally important to the future of business.
But until recently, there wasn’t an instrument for measuring what constituted a “strong workforce”. Workforce cheerleaders had to fall back on the impossible-to-prove “work ethic” argument to describe what they considered to be an above average labor pool.
At last, that has started to change. In 2012 ACT introduced Work Ready Communities, a program aimed at closing the skills gap in America for the purpose of making the country more competitive as a whole. Communities participate in the program by linking workforce development to education through the National Career Readiness Certificate, thus addressing economic development at the local level.
But what is really telling about the program is not just what it proves about a community, but what it spawns. And that is a measurable work ethic. The WRC program, while intended to make the United States more competitive overall, is proving to make states more competitive against each other. Several have joined the race for the title of valedictorian.
And Missouri is leading the way. Missouri became the first state on board in 2013 when Jasper County in southwest Missouri became the nation’s first certified work ready community. Five months later Clarendon County in South Carolina followed suit. These two states - along with Utah and Oregon - have been duking it out ever since. Missouri currently has more than a third of its counties participating in the program, with four of those officially certified. This puts Missouri at the front of the pack for certification.
What’s driving Missouri to run such a hard race? Is it just that classic Midwestern work ethic? Perhaps. But if so, why aren’t more Midwestern states participating in WRC? Maybe there’s something else about Missouri. Maybe it’s those two little words: SHOW ME.
Missouri’s “show me” monicker is an albatross for some of the state’s residents. The very idea that the world views them as constantly needing proof is not the way they would choose to be known. And yet, these same people will admit out of the corners of their mouths that it’s true. Native Missourians, for better or worse, have grown up with having to prove their worth to others.
And so the WRC program plays nicely into their hands – and into the hands of any community that finds itself in the same boat. This is a priority for us, Missouri’s communities seem to be saying. This is the place to prove what we are made of.
Missouri has one of the best high school graduation rates in the country, meaning there is a greater likelihood that employers will be able to find candidates with basic competencies needed for blue collar work.
For the bio and IT sectors, where a higher level of educational attainment is required, Missouri has literally hundreds of degree programs to train and retrain workers. According to Dice.com, Missouri has been cited for two years in a row as the fastest growing state for tech jobs in the country. Its two major metros – Kansas City and St. Louis – have also been named best in that class: Kansas City as the country’s most promising tech hub (Techie.com) and St. Louis as the fastest growing city for tech jobs. (Dice.com)
Missouri is a stronghold for talent in the bio arena as well. The Animal Health Corridor, centered-around Kansas City, Missouri, is home to a full third of the global animal health industry, bringing with it a tremendous amount of bio talent. On the eastern side the state, St. Louis has the largest concentration of plant scientists in the world.
To businesses considering new facilities, these stats may seem a little daunting. When you have that kind of focus, there has got to be a price, right? The answer is yes.
Missouri’s workforce does come with a price, but that price is manageable. Like many Midwest states, Missouri has a very affordable business climate with wages 8% below the U.S. average. Furthermore, Missouri has lower unionization rates than many of its Midwest neighbors.
Now, if you’re playing devils’ advocate, you’ve got to be questioning the scalability of a new operation, regardless of quality and cost. Because, as the economy continues to improve, staffing worries may become your company’s biggest nail biter.
And this is where Missouri has a decided edge over most of its neighbors. Look at the U.S. workforce map. Lots of workers on the west coast, lots on the east coast, and lots migrating toward the center of the country. In fact, Missouri is as far inland as you can go and find a labor pool this large. The state’s workforce of 3 million is actually greater than the entire populations of 20 other states, making it a safe, long-term investment for companies planning for growth.
And supposing those 3 million workers aren’t enough? No worries. Missouri’s major metros – Kansas City and St. Louis – spill over into neighboring Kansas and Illinois, respectively, growing the potential state workforce by a sizeable margin.
Yet, for its size and its affordability, Missouri doesn’t seem to know its own worth. The state still shows up for work each day trying to prove itself – as though it hasn’t already – relishing the opportunity to certify its workforce and to get in the game for that next big piece of business. Show me, companies say when they tour the state for new locations. And that’s exactly what Missouri does.