The Columbia business community has had its share of struggles in the past few years. The global pandemic strained existing issues and created new ones, from supply chain problems to struggling to attract and retain workers.
Inside Columbia Publisher Emeritus Fred Parry hosted a CEO Roundtable at Zimmer Communications with 11 local business, civic and education leaders to discuss the biggest issues facing Columbia and how we can best work to address them.
The event was sponsored by The Broadway Hotel; the hotel’s award-winning Chef Jeff Guinn catered the meal that accompanied the conversation.
Attendees included business owners and leaders from the health care, education, real estate and development industries. One of the biggest issues facing the local business community is one being faced nationwide: workforce development.
Building New Pipelines
The pandemic and the Great Resignation have created labor shortages in nearly every industry across the country, and Columbia’s businesses are feeling the pinch. Dr. Jerry Kennett, chair of the Boone Health Board of Directors, said staffing is the organization’s biggest challenge right now. “We have tremendous demand for patient services at Boone Hospital,” Kennett says. “If we could hire 100 nurses this afternoon, we would. It’s that big
But the issue goes beyond nursing and health care in general. While other technical fields within health care are struggling with staffing levels, it’s an issue many industries are having to deal with. One remedy is improving the pathways into various fields, which is what educational institutions such as Moberly Area Community College (MACC) and Columbia Public Schools (CPS) are trying to develop.
Jeff Lashley, MACC president, says several new health sciences programs have been started to try and positively impact area workforce issues. This year, MACC began a one-year program that allows practical nurses to become registered nurses and it’s already full, Lashley says. But even with that and other existing programs, including surgical technology, “We know we’re still not touching the need the way that we need to,” Lashley says.
Brian Yearwood, CPS superintendent, says an ongoing shortage of bus drivers is on the road to improvement as the district is developing programs to train drivers to receive the necessary licenses after being hired. CPS contracts with Student Transportation of America for bus services.
Yearwood says the district also is reaching out to area organizations and faith-based groups to try and widen the pool of available substitute teachers. “We are beating the bushes, as one would say, to try to remedy that situation,” Yearwood says.
As difficult as the workforce issues are to solve, Mayor Brian Treece says it’s important to keep in mind that the opposite problem — overwhelming unemployment — would be even worse. Treece, who is finishing his final term this spring, says job corridors, like the ones being developed through MACC and CPS, are key to developing the workforce the community needs. “But we have to build that pipeline,” Treece says.
Yearwood says the district is hoping to increase the number of available internships and develop more apprenticeships to improve available pathways to various fields. “That’s a new push for us that we must continue to do,” Yearwood says. “As workforce needs change, we need to continue to innovate and provide high-quality programs and learning facilities to support that growth
Lashley says MACC’s Early College program with CPS, which allows students to earn credits toward an associate’s degree while in high school, has grown in its second year and there are plans to expand the program into career and technical education. More than 100 students will graduate high school with significant college credits, he says. While he isn’t able to give concrete numbers yet, Lashley says the number of high school students graduating this spring with an associate’s degree will be in the double digits. “That’s a great path to a university or a four-year college to continue on in the bachelor’s program,” Lashley says. “We’re getting more first-generation students because of this program.”
The trouble is that many of the fields that are particularly hurting for people are highly specialized, says Rusty Drewing, president of Drewing Automotive. “If you have to build the pipeline, you’re already too late,” Drewing says. “I don’t know how you solve the problems you have in some of our industries overnight.”
In his business, Drewing says it’s easy to find a spot for someone with the right attitude. And when something comes up, like an inventory shortage, it’s time to tweak the standard practices and teach people a new way to think, he says. “We’re selling as many cars as we ever used to, but if you drive past our lots, you would think, ‘God, they’re struggling. They don’t have any cars,’” Drewing says.
The Columbia Area Career Center is an example of a local asset that’s incredibly beneficial for students, Treece says. The center includes an auto mechanics class that teaches skills that could help a student land an $80,000 salary as a mechanic at a local dealership. “We need to make all these opportunities available to kids because the middle skills gap between those with the high school degree and the college degree are where our community is going to see the greatest amount of growth,” he says.
Construction is another industry where workforce has become a very difficult problem to solve. Brian Toohey, CEO of the Columbia Board of REALTORS, says there’s nowhere near enough people to fill the available construction jobs, which is only further complicating an already tight housing market. “That’s definitely caused a hardship for building new housing,” Toohey says.
A Full-Blown Housing Crisis
While Columbia has been dealing with the issue of affordable housing for more than three decades, Toohey says the community is now dealing with an overall housing crisis. “In every single price range, we do not have enough housing,” he says. “Since the pandemic started, we’re lucky to have three weeks worth of inventory in the market.”
Ideally, he says, there would be between five to six months worth of inventory at this time of year.
It’s also important to remember the effect of regulatory changes on the housing market, says Jay Burchfield, founder and president of SilverTree Companies-Realty. “There’s increased bureaucracy in developing lots that are buildable,” he says. “It drives the price up, which is not being absorbed by the developer — it’s being passed on to the homeowner.”
Burchfield says it’s important to ensure codes and regulations fit the community’s needs and market in order to avoid arbitrary changes that substantially drive-up costs for very little benefit. What may be in vogue on the West Coast is not necessarily what our market demands, he says.
But at the same time, there are some aspects of new codes that potential home buyers are looking for, Treece says. “The reality is consumers and home buyers want some of the components in that green energy code.”
Robert Hollis, an attorney with Van Matre Law Firm, says while the city’s uniform development code, which
was overhauled in 2017, is a definite improvement over its predecessor, it may be time for the city to hire a consultant who can advise ways to streamline the process to be more consumer friendly.
Toohey says the city could use some of the federal money that has come in through the pandemic to hire someone who also could look for ways that the code could be adjusted to allow for different housing opportunities that don’t currently exist in Columbia.
Elizabeth Mendenhall, CEO of RE/MAX Boone Realty and a former president of the National Association of REALTORS, says Columbia has become a viable option to more people in the era of expanding remote work possibilities, but at the same time the local housing market is simply too expensive for those working in essential local positions, such as law enforcement and education. “When we talk about the jobs that we need, our prices are too high,” Mendenhall says. “That’s the real struggle.”
Yearwood notes that Missouri ranks at the bottom of U.S. states when it comes to average starting pay, which hurts the local district’s ability to attract quality teachers, even though starting pay for a CPS teacher is above the state minimum. “We cannot be ranked at the bottom as a state and keep high-quality teachers in our state and our community.”
The community as a whole has low unemployment and when there are top local companies attracting people with high salaries, it just drives up the price for everyone else, Mendenhall says. “We’re seeing those first-time home buyers, they’re not entering at normal first-time home buyer prices anymore. They’re entering at a second and third tier.”
While Columbia is home to many great companies, there’s more that can be done to attract, and retain, new industries to the area.
Jeff Echelmeier, CEO of Williams- Keepers LLC, points to the Missouri Innovation Center as an asset within the community, but it’s only a first step in attracting businesses.
“When we have an opportunity, we have to do everything we can to make that seed grow here, because if we don’t have the infrastructure for that seed to grow here, or the people, or the energy around it, it’s going to go somewhere else,” Echelmeier says. “That is definitely an asset that is in our grasp, if we can find a way to harness it.”
Kennett, of Boone Health, says the NextGen Precision Health Institute on the University of Missouri campus, which opened last fall, also has the potential to generate many new investments in the community. The facility is used for both bench and clinical research. Kennett says in order for that investment to reach its fullest potential, MU will need to continue to allow researchers to share in the rewards of their discoveries.
Ownership is an important aspect of attracting new industries, says Steve Knorr, president of Endovac Animal Health. Those in high technology industries are not looking to lease a property, they want to buy it.
Burchfield says the area currently has an industrial vacancy rate of 3%. Considering 10% is healthy, Burchfield says, there is essentially nothing available for industrial companies in the area.
All of the shovel-ready sites have been exhausted, Treece says. New ones should be created and Treece says that would be a job for the city and Regional Economic Development Inc.
Even without sites ready to go, Treece says companies have chosen to locate here because of the strength of the area’s diversity. He points to companies like Aurora Organic Dairy, which opened in Columbia in 2019 on a 102-acre site.
“We’ve got great companies here that could locate any other place, but because they feel welcome here, they stay,” Treece says. “When people feel welcome here, they want to move here, they want to send their kids to college here.”
The Recruitment Challenge
But after college graduation, many students leave Columbia and mid- Missouri for other bigger cities.
Echelmeier says recruitment is a constant challenge, as there is also a nationwide shortage of accountants. What they’ve found, he says, is that their best chance is to recruit those who grew up in mid-Missouri or other small towns and are about three or four years out of college, now looking to return from the larger cities.
“We have limited opportunities to recruit a person who grew up in St. Louis or Kansas City, and sometimes we lose someone who grew up in mid- Missouri, wanting to go to the city for a period of time for an experience,” Echelmeier says.
But after a few years away, he says, mid-Missouri begins to look more attractive as those young people start looking to buy a house with a yard and move closer to grandparents. “We want to provide an opportunity for them to move back and have had some good success in that,” Echelmeier says.
Columbia has an opportunity now as a centrally located city to take advantage of the mass migrations being seen from populous states such as California, Knorr says. “There’s a short period of time that we have as a community to really attract some very unique businesses and people to this part of the world that we may not have in the rest of our lifetimes,” Knorr says.
Treece says there are plenty of amenities to attract people to the area, it’s simply a question of packaging them properly. He points to the trail system and world-class Columbia Farmers Market as examples of what Columbia has to offer. As for anything that’s missing, “We can develop the amenities,” Treece says.
Mendenhall says Columbia needs to do a better job of taking those selling points and amenities, and presenting the right package when recruiting those young people back to the area when they’re ready to buy a home.
“We can sell this town, that’s not a problem,” Mendenhall says. “This town is awesome.”
But what’s missing may be a comprehensive vision for the future.
“We have to figure out where we fit,” Mendenhall says, noting that growth would help address many of Columbia’s issues, but it takes vision to achieve that growth. She says there’s a new group of community leaders who have yet to be tapped. These are not CEOs or small business owners, but regular employees sitting at EquipmentShare or Veterans United, making significant salaries and contributing to the community, but who have not yet been given the opportunity to engage.
“They’re not engaged in what this town can be and can look like, and they want to be,” Mendenhall says. It’s a question of how to get that group to be more involved in crafting Columbia’s vision for the future.
“One of the strengths of the last two years and how we handled the pandemic was how we collaborated as a community … and we made decisions together, very difficult decisions that I think got us through the pandemic. … But that framework for decision making shouldn’t happen just in times of trouble.”
– Mayor Brian Treece
“We want to continue to receive support from industry where we can have our scholars doing apprenticeships, internships in their area of (study). If there are any doors open in industry or business, we’d love to have a conversation.”
– Brian Yearwood, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools
“What is it over the next year that we can do to help small businesses get back on their feet? Many have had a very difficult two years and we need to look for ways to help shore them up a little bit.”
– Steve Knorr President of Endovac Animal Health
“There’s an entire new wave of community leaders that we have an opportunity to engage. They’re not the small business owners and they’re not the CEOs. … How do we get that group in and contributing to build this community? We’re not quite there yet.”
– Elizabeth Mendenhall, CEO of RE/MAX Boone Realty
“We need to redefine what your first-time house is. … People need to look at being more acceptable of multi-family housing for a while and then looking for that three bedroom, two bath, two-car garage house.”
– Brian Toohey, CEO of the Columbia Board of REALTORS
“Once you’re here, you never want to leave. And once you leave, you always want to come back. … I don’t know how you get the rest of the world to see this.”
– Rusty Drewing, president of Drewing Automotive
“Only 20% of employees are engaged in the culture of their employment, and that’s the 20% you keep that won’t leave you for more money. … I think we have a whole generation of workers that view a career and view what a job means in their life differently than what we have.”
– Jeff Lashley, MACC president
“(The Broadway Hotel) has spent years with a goal of accumulating enough property downtown to develop a convention center. … We’ve taken this to the city and been met with a lukewarm response, which is shocking. … This is absolutely a public- private partnership if there’s ever been one, because convention centers don’t make any money, but I think it’d be a great thing for Columbia.”
– Robert Hollis, attorney with Van Matre Law Firm
“Without the amenities and the infrastructure, we run the risk of people living somewhere else and wiring in to do their work in Columbia. … We need to create the environment where they want to live here. They might work somewhere else, but we need them living here.”
– Jeff Echelmeier, CEO of Williams-Keepers LLC
“We need to focus on business retention and expansion, and attracting people. Skilled labor should be a priority. … There has to be a leader that has a mission statement and sets that tone.”
– Jay Burchfield, founder and president of SilverTree Companies-Realty
“The younger population now moves from job to job for minor reasons, which makes it even more challenging for us to ensure that Columbia is an extremely inviting and desirable place to be.”
– Dr. Jerry Kennett, chair of the Boone Health Board of Directors