As you will read in this issue of Inside Columbia, we hosted another CEO Roundtable Luncheon last month. At these semi-annual luncheons we invite local community leaders to have a candid conversation with the magazine’s leadership team about Columbia’s current state of affairs and their concerns for the future of our community. In addition to the topics of crime, a shortage of affordable housing options and deep concerns surrounding Columbia’s chronically unhoused population, a significant shortage in Columbia’s workforce is the one issue that has consistently been a popular topic since we started hosting these luncheons nearly 20 years ago.
Not long after our CEO Roundtable Luncheon, I had the opportunity to attend the Workforce 2030 Conference hosted by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. To no one’s surprise, Columbia is not alone in its shortage of qualified workers. Like other communities, we struggle with issues that make it difficult for us to attract workers. Chief among those issues is our lack of affordable housing and reliable public transportation, as well as affordable child care. A survey performed for the Missouri Chamber, revealed that nearly 80% of those who are gainfully employed find it difficult to deal with the expense and reliability of child care options. For many able-bodied workers, it’s just easier to avoid these barriers by staying out of the workforce.
As community leaders conceded during our CEO Roundtable Luncheon, there are no easy answers to address our affordable housing issues here in Columbia. Business owners have decided that the best way to contend with our shortage of workers is to import workers from outside of Columbia. Most people might be surprised to know that almost 40% of our local workforce is made up of people who don’t live in Columbia.
To make matters even more challenging, there’s a growing concern among Missouri employers that students graduating from our high schools and colleges are not adequately prepared for the workforce. More than 65% of surveyed employers claim that today’s graduates are lacking the professional and life skills necessary for full time employment. Basic requirements like showing up to work on time, being appropriately dressed and an ability to work productively with co-workers and customers are among the most troubling issues.
This lack of preparation with demographic trends like Baby Boomers retiring in record numbers and the significant cliff caused by a decline in birthrate that started in 2007 is troubling. As if that’s not challenging enough, we have a generation of new workers (Gen Z) who would prefer to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors or short-term gigs instead of full- time employment. Survey results confirm these trends with 36% of respondents indicating that they prefer “job flexibility” over “job stability.” A growing number of workers want flexible hours and the ability to work from home. This trend does not bode well for the service industry, retail and public safety sectors.
This same survey also projected that nearly 75% of all future jobs won’t require a college degree. This trend, combined with the previously mentioned demographic shifts should be of great concern to a community, like Columbia, whose economic engine is driven by higher education.
There are some cities that are bucking the national trends and finding success in convincing prospective workers to come to their communities to work. These cities have placed a laser-like focus on quality-of-life issues that resonate with younger workers and are working intensely on the housing, child care and transportation issues that have traditionally prevented workers from coming to their market. In addition to quality-of-life amenities, nearly 30% of surveyed workers who recently relocated for work did so because they were moving closer to family. There’s a widespread belief that this type of “boomerang” effect could be to Columbia’s benefit for those workers who feel a sense of familial connection to the University of Missouri, Columbia College and Stephens College.
The best way for Columbia and Boone County to contend with its workforce shortage is to hunker down and be certain that there is maximum collaboration and alignment between Columbia’s employers, social service agencies and our educational institutions. We need to be certain that our high schools, community colleges, vocational schools and colleges understand and are responsive to the needs of Boone County employers and are equally committed to delivering well-prepared candidates to the local workforce.
We are a community that relies on a healthy and robust economy to underwrite our exceptional quality of life driven by parks, trails and other public amenities. We all have a stake in our workforce shortage and must do all we can to reverse this troubling trend. The time for action is now.