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Building an Economic Powerhouse: Officials aim to position Missouri as Midwest leader

Statewide initiatives seek to reverse course in economic development

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The Missouri Department of Economic Development and the Department of Higher Education are spearheading two initiatives to develop statewide strategies for economic development and workforce needs.

Comparing the state among its Midwest peers, DED Director Rob Dixon said Missouri just isn’t cutting it.

“Missouri has the potential to be an economic powerhouse,” Dixon said. “But unfortunately and candidly, we’re not right now.”

The Talent for Tomorrow and Best in the Midwest advisory councils, made up of stakeholders across the state, began this spring analyzing key performance indicators for economic development and workforce quality that currently rank Missouri near the bottom of 14 Midwest states, Dixon said leaders are working to create a plan to reverse course.

“We believe we will transform Missouri to a top state,” he said.

Topping the list of challenges to tackle is the quality and quantity of the workforce.

Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan said of every 100 Missourians who enter eighth grade, 79 will graduate high school, 55 of those will go on to college and only 27 of those who enter college will graduate.

“We’re in the top 10, best in the nation for high school level graduation rates,” she said, however, “employers for the most part are not particularly enthusiastic about the graduates of our colleges and universities.”

Mulligan said the initiative focuses on creating high-quality training for students in growing industries, as well as learning the skills and traits business owners are looking for in employees.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do both in terms of making sure students are ready for the workplace when they graduate from college but also, and perhaps equally important, making sure they get to college in the first place,” she said.

Allen Kunkel, associate vice president of economic development at Missouri State University and director of the Jordan Valley Innovation Center, sits on the advisory council for the initiatives. He said MSU is committed to engaging with businesses and updating education.

“We need to have better communication and collaboration with the business community with exactly what their needs are,” he said.

Kunkel also said funding of education is key to turning the tide.

“The amount of funding the state has put into higher education over the years has limited us to be able to do some things, but that’s no excuse,” he said.

He said MSU President Clif Smart has met with newly appointed Gov. Mike Parson, and said Smart believes the governor values education, especially higher education.

“The only way we’ll move forward is to invest in our people and that starts with education,” Kunkel said.

That goes hand-in-hand with meeting the demand for workers.

“We don’t have enough people to meet the workforce needs going forward,” he said. “Every state is going to be competing for bodies and skill.”

The shrinking availability of talent is a theme among many economic development leaders.

“Workforce shortages are not something that is going to go away; the data tells us we have to be focused on this,” said Ryan Mooney, senior vice president for economic development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and member of the initiatives’ advisory council.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services, by 2030, 28 percent of the Show-Me State’s population will be 60 or older, causing the state to project a working-age population decline of 2 percent by 2028.

To fill the talent pipeline, members of the advisory council have shared best practices across the state.

Dean Thompson, associate general manager of economic development and SpringNet for City Utilities of Springfield, said Springfield’s success in collaboration is one best practice he’s sharing in his capacity on the advisory committee.

“We’ve cracked the code in the last 20 years or so,” he said. “To the level that we collaborate and we partner, it is definitely unique. Not just for the state, but across the nation.”

He said his No. 1 focus for economic development is basic: “We don’t, in Missouri, have an economic development strategy. We need a strategy.”

Thompson said key points of the strategy should focus on quality of college graduates and identifying “megatrends” that the state can jump on to compete globally.

“We have all the ingredients for success to be the best in the Midwest,” he said. “What we don’t have is a synchronized effort to get there, and that’s what this initiative is doing.”

Dixon echoed this sentiment: “We have some really strong assets related to the uniqueness of our regional communities and economies.”

With strength in agriculture, manufacturing and logistics, to name a few, Dixon said Missouri benefits from a diverse economy. It also spreads its gross regional product across the “coasts” of the state, with $58 billion in GRP in Kansas City and $116 billion in St. Louis. Data from the DED shows the area surrounding Springfield and Ozark produces $18 billion in GRP.

Mooney also said Missouri’s diversity is a plus, noting an economic development strategy would have to take a “unique approach” to fulfill the needs of varying communities.

Two main areas of opportunity he’s identified during this fact-finding portion of the initiatives are finding ways to better fund infrastructure, especially transportation, and higher education.

He said the chamber’s Greater Ozarks Centers for Advanced Professional Studies, or GO CAPS, program in 20 Missouri school districts is one best practice that other communities could replicate to help better prepare the future workforce.

After two committee meetings and a statewide summit, Mooney said he feels confident this initiative will be successful.

“We have an economic development director who’s very focused on this and a governor who’s very focused on this and a legislature that’s very focused on this,” he said. “I think all the pieces are coming together.”

Following the Talent for Tomorrow and Best in the Midwest statewide summit on June 27, regional leaders will meet in Springfield on July 10 to discuss next steps. Implementation of strategies is set to begin this fall.

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