Recently, there have been multiple studies and subsequent breaking stories about the looming workforce crisis in America, and how there is a fundamental need among Americans to become better educated regarding the shifting landscape in the economy. From my vantage point, this crisis is no longer looming – it has arrived! It is already a significant challenge for many employers across the region and will eventually become a significant barrier to the growth of our local economy if our leaders do not find effective ways to demonstrate pathways to high wage jobs in the not too distant future.
Locally, we are observing clear evidence of the workforce crisis phenomenon. In the College’s most recent State of the St. Louis Workforce Report, we feature intelligence and analytics from MERIC, Burning Glass Technologies, and input from 1,100 local employers. The outcomes of the report demonstrate the strong need for “middle-skill” workers in St. Louis and the State of Missouri. “Middle-Skills” are defined as those occupations that require more than a high school diploma, but not necessarily a four-year degree.
Data from this year’s report, entitled Right in the Middle: Skills at the Center of the St. Louis Economy, clearly illustrates that there are now more middle-skill jobs available (53%) than there are workers who are educated to fill them (46%). In fact, looking through to 2024, demand for middle-skill jobs will remain strong with 48% of jobs in Missouri being projected to be within the middle skill category. And, for the third year in a row, employers reported that shortage of workers with knowledge and skills is the number one barrier to expanding employment in the region. Report data reflects that many job applicants are deficient in both soft skills and technical skills.
National data and reports show similar evidence of what we are experiencing in our local economy. The Center on Education and the Workforce from Georgetown University just issued the report Good Jobs that Pay Without a B.A. The report demonstrates that common assumptions that such jobs are not a good choice for young people or adults are in fact false, as there are 30 million good jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, which is up from 27 million in 1991 despite large losses in manufacturing employment. These good jobs pay an average of $55,000 per year and reflect a minimum of $35,000 annually.
As we are seeing locally, the Georgetown University study reflects that significant gains in new jobs are occurring in healthcare services, financial services, information technology, skilled trades and education services industries. New good jobs are going to workers with some college education and an associate’s degree rather than workers with high school diplomas. A concerning set of data to note in formulating strategies for St. Louis is that since 1991, Whites continue to hold most of the good jobs going to workers without a B.A. (67%). The rapidly growing workforce of Latinos has claimed a rising share of good jobs (16%) however the percentage of good jobs held by Blacks has been almost flat over time (9%). Going forward, we collectively need to balance these statistics by creating opportunities for our minority populations.
So, St. Louis, what strategies do we deploy to address this challenge and this opportunity? It should be noted there are efforts underway in other parts of this country to assist with this challenge. Just this August, The Hechinger Report discussed how California is addressing the very same issues we are contemplating here in Missouri, which is creating awareness of how workforce educational programs can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a graduate’s income. Strategies utilized included a state-wide campaign to revive the reputation of workforce programs, a reduction in regulatory oversight to ease the process through which individual colleges can add new programs to help local businesses, and how business and industry are expanding partnerships with local community colleges to address workforce shortages.
Currently, the College offers several middle-skills career degree and short-term programs, including those noted above identified from recent research efforts. We also provide high-quality workforce programs directly tied to area employers, such as the Boeing pre-employment training program and the Bio-Tech programs located at BRDG Park that provides a pipeline of well-prepared employees to start-up companies at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Of equal significance, the College’s enrollment consists of 47% minority students, an important data point if we are to address the issue of low-minority participation in the middle-skills movement. Finally, just this month, Governor Eric Greitens announced the formation of the Skilled Workforce Missouri program, in which the state’s community colleges have partnered with the Department of Workforce Development to address the shortages of skilled workers across the entire State.
In speaking on behalf of our Trustees, faculty and staff, all of us at St. Louis Community College stand ready to serve as willing partners by working with local educational institutions, businesses and social organizations to find ways to map educational pathways to high wage jobs. Together, we can make a tremendous difference in filling the critical gap of shortages of skilled workers in the years to come. I look forward to the opportunities ahead!
Jeff L. Pittman, Ph.D.
Jeff is the Chancellor of St. Louis Community College and Chair of the Missouri Community College Association.