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State of St. Louis Workforce Report reveals skills gap, ways to overcome challenges

August 08, 2012

State of the St. Louis Workforce panel  
More than 400 business, education and civic leaders attended the 2012 State of St. Louis Workforce Report developed by St. Louis Community College.














Although the employment rate has improved in the St. Louis region since 2010, a skills gap in the workforce remains one of the top challenges for the local economy, according to the fourth annual “State of St. Louis Workforce Report” developed by St. Louis Community College. 

A panel of local employers discussed how they’re identifying ideal job applicants and finding ways to overcome the skills gap to fill open positions.

“Employers must play a role in training new and existing workers with the skills needed to compete in the fast-paced global economy. In this year’s report, 76 percent of employers said they hired less experienced workers and trained them with the skills they needed,” said Rod Nunn, STLCC's vice chancellor for economic development and workforce solutions, who also moderated today’s panel discussion. “The skills gap is one of the region’s most important economic challenges, and I was pleased to hear from four employers today who are making important investments to get the right employees, with the right skills, in the right positions.”

The report was developed by STLCC in partnership with local workforce investment boards, Missouri Career Centers, Southwestern Illinois WorkNet Centers, Go! Network, BounceBack St. Louis, Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, and the St. Louis Business Journal.

Joining Nunn on the 2012 State of St. Louis Workforce panel were: Norm Bartlett, vice president of leadership talent management-organization effectiveness for The Boeing Company; Dave Cheli, chief information officer for Gateway EDI; Myrtle E.B. Dorsey, chancellor for St. Louis Community College; JoAnn Shaw, vice president and chief learning officer for BJC HealthCare; Rebecca Shocklee, director of human resources for Gallus BioPharmaceuticals; and Alan Spell, economic and workforce research manager for Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC).

More than 400 business, education and civic leaders attended the event. Panelists shared some of their talent acquisition and development solutions, including:

  • Offering tuition remission and paid training benefits for current employees so they advance their skills and move up within the organization.
  • Creating opportunities for professional development and a culture of continuous learning to increase employee engagement so workers stay with the company long-term.
  • Developing peer-to-peer and mentor training programs to encourage the sharing of best practices in the company and reinforce a culture of continuous learning.
  • Reaching out to students throughout different levels of education to encourage them to pursue careers in growth fields like healthcare and engineering.

“When we have a position to fill, we will wait for the right candidate,” Shocklee said. “We have a rigorous screening process, and 99 percent of the time we feel we do a solid job of predicting performance.”

According to this year’s report, one in three St. Louis area companies anticipates an increase in employment levels in the near term. However, those employers continue to find mismatches between job applicant skills and the job requirements for open positions. Many applicants aren’t “work-ready,” lacking the personal effectiveness competencies – often described as “soft skills” – needed to succeed in the modern work environment.

According to Spell, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a sharp rise in job openings for June. Spell went on to say that skill mismatches prevented many of those jobs from being quickly filled.

“Where we find the skills gap most often is when candidates are coming to us without the necessary life skills or soft skills; often it’s the inability to communicate,” Shaw said. "If a person is dealing with patient or a patient’s family and cannot communicate, that’s a problem.”

To evaluate all factors affecting the region’s workforce, STLCC conducted four phases of research: an environmental scan of the St. Louis economy, an employer survey with more than 1,200 businesses in the region, six in-depth case studies and an analysis of surveys and focus groups with community college graduates. Key findings from this year’s report include:

More than half of employers said recent hires lacked soft skills, specifically communication or interpersonal skills; work ethic; thinking and problem solving; and general knowledge of business or industry.

“Soft skills are just as important as technical skills,” Cheli said. “Sometimes finding both of those in the same candidate is difficult. We’ve made significant investments in internal training and formal mentoring programs, which has created a culture of continuous learning at our company.”

Other key findings included:  

  • More than a third of employers said recent hires lacked a willingness and an ability to learn; teamwork and collaboration; writing skills; and technical skills specific to the job.
  • To address skill shortages, 76 percent of employers hired less experienced workers and trained them.
  • Among skill shortages in functional areas, employers identified customer service (17.4 percent), information technology (13.1 percent), skilled trades (12.6) and business management (9.6 percent) as the top four.

The 2012 report indicates optimism for job growth. 33.1 percent of employers reported plans to increase employment in the next year while only 6.8 percent plan to decrease employment.

“We’re cautiously optimistic and expect to add more positions during the next 12 months,” Bartlett said. “To find the right candidates, we’re getting to college campuses early on to recruit, and even going to high schools and middle schools to encourage students to pursue careers in math and science.”
Other employment outlook trends highlighted in the report include:

  • Employers are being more cautious than in 2011, when 48 percent said they intended to increase employment.
  • Fewer employers are intending to decrease employment in the next 12 months (6.8 percent) than the past 12 months (17.8 percent).
  • In the survey, 31.6 percent of employers said they increased hiring during the past 12 months, while 17.6 percent had decreased employment over the previous 12 months.
  • Employers identified the top three barriers to expanding employment as: economic conditions (52 percent), government policies or regulations (36 percent) and shortage of workers with knowledge or skills (33 percent).

Education plays a significant factor in unemployment and earnings, according to the report. Unemployment rates drop significantly in St. Louis with each step up the educational attainment ladder.

Other key findings on education and employment included:

  • Unemployment rates in St. Louis based on education attainment: Less than a high school diploma (22.9 percent), high school graduate (13.5 percent), some college or associate degree (7.9 percent), bachelor’s degree or higher (4.2 percent).
  • In the St. Louis area, jobs requiring at least an associate degree will see the largest growth by 2020 (12 percent).
  • Educational attainment for workers 25-64 years old: High school diploma (26 percent), some postsecondary education, but no degree (24 percent), associate degree (9 percent), bachelor’s degree (20 percent), graduate or professional degree (12 percent), no high school diploma (9 percent).

A survey of 280 community college graduates from across the region showed 94 percent believed that the skills they learned improved their performance on the job.

“As President Obama said during his 2012 State of the Union address, community colleges continue to be the best resources for training in the skills that businesses are looking for right now,” Nunn said. “Our survey reaffirmed that students are finding the resources they need at regional community colleges – as nearly 90 percent reported they felt prepared by their coursework in soft and technical skills.”

Other key findings of the community college survey included:

  • More than half of respondents enrolled in a community college program because they thought completion would create more stable employment (57.5 percent), while 41.8 percent said they thought it would increase future salary potential.
  • 60 percent of respondents in the community college survey said they were currently working and nearly 70 percent said they would make the same program choice.
  • Even as graduates enter the workforce, they are finding barriers to employment: 47.1 percent said its starting pay offered, 28.8 percent said lack of credentials or certificates, and 26.7 percent cited limited technical skills.

About the “State of St. Louis Workforce Report”
Experts from the college’s Center for Business, Industry and Labor also blogged live from the event. (Videos will be posted on St. Louis Community College’s YouTube Channel during the week of Aug.13.)