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Labor Barriers: Local leaders wade through transportation, child care hurdles in the workforce

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The Perfect Storm

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Over two years beyond the coronavirus pandemic’s start, hiring challenges persist, as hurdles such as transportation and child care keep some from entering or staying in the labor market, local leaders say.

But while demand for employees continues to outpace supply, Sally Payne, workforce development director for the city of Springfield, says she sees several reasons to be optimistic.

“We’re starting to see traffic pick up at the [Missouri] Job Center, which is a good sign. Businesses and organizations have been adjusting to the current environment,” she says, noting strategies include shortening hours of operation or simply making do withfewer workers. 

Local job training efforts are about to get a major funding boost with over $20 million in federal grants awarded to the city of Springfield for training and apprenticeship programs. 

The new grants arrive amid the Labor Department’s most recent job report, in which job openings fell to 10.7 million in June from 11.3 million in May. It was the first month since November 2021 that job openings didn’t exceed 11 million. 

Payne says the transportation barrier that some face to gain or maintain employment is partly being tackled by the Let’s Get to Work Fund, started last year by Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. The nonprofit issued $365,000 for its first two rounds of grants earlier this year. A third round is expected later this year, says CFO President Brian Fogle. Past recipients include the Drew Lewis Foundation Inc., Freedom’s Rest Family Violence Center and Springfield Business Development Corp.

“We opened that in December and it has been very well received,” he says, noting CFO has added another $100,000 to the fund. “We’ve had some agencies that have now come back for a third time to do it.”

Funds can be used for transportation-related barriers to employment, such as car repairs, vehicle purchase down payments and new tires, he says. 

“We’re going to continue to seek funds for it,” Fogle says. “I know our $100,000 will probably go pretty quickly in the next couple of months.”

Another major barrier for the workforce is child care, Fogle says. He and Payne have studied the issue for much of the year. Fogle says women, ages 25-44, are the No. 1 group leaving the workforce since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“The reality is women are the majority of the caretakers, whether it’s children or aging parents or family members,” Payne says. “Child care shortages are just hitting everyone in the economy really hard. We’re going to see a little bit of relief coming when schools start back up.”

Attracting employees to work in the child care industry is also an ongoing challenge, Fogle says.

“One of the big challenges that they’re facing acutely is what everybody else is facing – and that’s hiring people,” he says.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, median pay in 2021 for child care workers was $27,490 per year or $13.22 per hour. 

“Somehow we’re going to have to raise the wages,” Payne says. “It could be employers subsidizing slots, which would take that operational burden off of the actual providers.”

A pod model, in which multiple home child care providers operate their businesses under the same roof, using shared resources, is a concept Payne says she and Fogle have been researching with Robin Phillips of nonprofit Child Care Aware of Missouri. However, Payne says she’s still awaiting reports from other states that utilize the model, such as Minnesota, noting the idea is still in preliminary discussions.

Adding employees is top of mind for businesses over the next year, according to respondents in Springfield Business Journal’s 2022 Economic Growth Survey. Roughly 51% of respondents say they plan to increase their employee count, while another 33% want to recruit new employees to the Springfield market to replace any who plan to leave. Around 1 in 4 respondents expect to stand pat on hiring for the next 12 months, according to the survey. 

Another challenge is child care is getting more expensive, forcing parents to spend a larger portion of their paychecks on it, according to a recent report from nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The report found the national average annual cost of child care in 2020 – the latest data available – was $10,174. That’s over 10% of the median income for a married couple, and more than 35% of median income for a single parent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends parents spend no more than 7% of their household income on child care.

Child care issues also are costly to Missouri’s economy. A report issued last year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry said child care issues result in the state’s economy missing an estimated $1.35 billion annually, including a $280 million loss in tax revenue per year. Additionally, 28% of respondents reported that they or someone in their household has left a job, not taken a job, or greatly changed jobs because of problems with child care in the last 12 months.

State Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, says workforce issues are among his top priorities as a legislator. Elected in 2020, Riley says all groups he’s visited with in recent months, including those in manufacturing, health care and agriculture, all have the same concerns about lack of employees.

“It certainly is still a big problem, and it’s a big problem across all industries,” he says.

Many of those same conversations with officials note barriers to workforce entry, Riley says, adding the desire to improve access to child care is a common topic. 

“You certainly have to be careful when you’re dealing with regulatory issues in child care,” he says. “There are a few things that have certain regulations on the number of kids that facilities can have. A lot of those make sense as you don’t want to have places where you have too many kids and not enough staff to oversee them.”

Riley says he’s still trying to flesh out what bills, if any, he could file to help with child care access and those seeking to start their own facilities in the industry. He says pre-filing starts Dec. 1. 

Still, help for Missouri child care providers is coming from the state government. The state is allocating roughly $444 million in relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act for staff retention, operations and professional development, according to officials. 

Locally, Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc. is on the verge of launching a new program to unite parents with child care providers. Child Care Connect, created in partnership with the local Parents as Teachers program at Springfield Public Schools, should be available on the CPO website by month’s end, said Janet Dankert, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. The program provides a database to help parents living in Greene, Christian, Polk and Webster counties connect with providers to find child care spots. 

“We will have dedicated staff that will be able to answer calls or call parents back to have those conversations,” Dankert says, noting CPO projects 150-200 providers will participate in the program. “Child care is an important decision, and we want to make sure that we’re providing good, timely and relevant information when parents need it.” 

Payne says overcoming current employment barriers requires the community to keep having conversations to find solutions.

“We just can’t give up,” she says. “As long as we keep going, we’ll get somewhere.”

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