Chamber calls on members to help boost area education

Two-thirds of area employers don’t work with local educational or training organization outfits to skill up or recruit the talent they need. An additional 10 percent don’t know if they do.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a new workforce survey of 260 firms released by the St. Louis Regional Chamber at an event Thursday. And that has to change, said Chamber President and CEO Tom Chulick.

“This is a supply issue,” he said. “We need more people to come to the door of educational institutions.”

The survey, conducted by national organization the Graduate Network with a grant from the Walmart Foundation, is part of a Chamber effort to engage the private sector to take a bigger, bolder role in workforce development and higher education attainment.

The Chamber announced several new initiatives as part of the effort, including a campaign to recruit students at colleges within 250 miles of St. Louis through internships at area businesses and a planned scholarship fund to help workers finish degrees they’ve started but didn’t finish due to financial reasons.

The workforce push comes amid a tight labor market due to a strong economy. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has made workforce development one of his top priorities.

The Missouri House last month passed his Fast Track program, which sought

$22 million to provide tuition assistance for adults who want to return to school and train for hard-to-fill jobs.

While Chamber officials praised the governor’s program, Chulick said the private sector in the region also needs to step up.

“This is business-led,” Chulick said. “We aren’t able to wait for the legislative process to give us the guidance to move ahead.”

Dennis Hummel, vice chairman of Fenton-based Maritz, implored the area’s businesses to get involved with local educational institutions and talk to faculty there about curriculum and training needs.

“We’re not going to solve this problem through government,” he said. “Business has to get involved.”

A region’s economic strength is closely tied to the skills and education of its workforce, even more so in the knowledge-based economy of today. Metro areas with loads of smart workers such as San Francisco and Boston continue to grow despite far higher costs of living than many locales.

Higher educational attainment not only benefits the region, but individual businesses that offer incentives to employees often see returns in better employee retention, said Dan Ash, research director at the Graduate Network.

In St. Louis, which often touts plant science and medical research among its strongest industry clusters, the top jobs respondents to the survey said were hardest to fill were engineers, scientists and high-skilled medical professionals.

Over 40 percent of businesses in the survey said they’ll need more employees with bachelor’s degrees in the next five years. Nearly one-third said they’ll need more workers with advanced degrees.

About 34 percent of the St. Louis region’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, slightly above the national average of 31 percent, according to St. Louis Community College’s 2018 regional workforce survey.

In late 2017, the Chamber launched an initiative, Gateway to Degrees, aiming to boost the region’s educational attainment by connecting adults with resources and coaching to get them into college.

On Thursday, it also announced it was seeking to bring on partners to form the St. Louis Regional Finish Line Fund, which would provide scholarships and financial assistance to adults who are close to finishing their degrees but didn’t finish for financial reasons. There’s an estimated 22 percent of the area’s population that has some college but no degree, according to the St. Louis Community College report.

And the Chamber’s new Project 250 pilot program would get staff to colleges both in St. Louis and in smaller towns outside of the region to promote St. Louis and draw talent. What the Chamber needs is about 10 to 15 companies to participate by offering internship positions that the Chamber can help fill with students.

“To a kid from Little Rock, Ark., St. Louis looks pretty grown-up and sexy,” said Valerie Patton, the Chamber’s vice president of inclusion and talent attraction, who’s leading Project 250.

It’s not just internships for college students, Chulick said. Businesses need to be going into local high schools — even middle schools — to tell students about the career path to their companies.

“We’ve got to do a lot better job letting the student population know there’s opportunity here,” he said.

Jacob Barker

Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291