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Michael Muriuki, who hails from Kenya, is a full-time worker at a local berry farm.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
Michael Muriuki, who hails from Kenya, is a full-time worker at a local berry farm.

World’s workers can help fill local employment gap

Posted online

The Springfield metropolitan statistical area has an unemployment rate of 2.4%, according to data released this month from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Anything under 3% is considered full employment, according to Katherine Trombetta, communications coordinator for the Missouri Job Center. By this definition, the Springfield MSA has been at full employment since September 2021, based on St. Louis Fed data.

In other words, nearly everyone who wants a job has one in the local economy, but local employers have reported challenges in finding enough talent to be fully staffed.

In a December interview with Springfield Business Journal providing an outlook of the 2023 economic landscape, Jason Flores, chief investment officer for Central Trust Co., said immigration could be the answer to some of the area’s workforce problems.

“A lot of those jobs that are getting hit and are hardest to hire are the lower-wage, lower-skill jobs,” he said at the time. “Immigrants typically fill those roles pretty well.”

He noted, however, that because of polarization and politics, a comprehensive immigration reform policy is unlikely to happen soon – and the prediction he made five months ago seems no closer today.

GR Stovall, president of construction management and contracting firm DeWitt & Associates Inc., said he has had good experiences with the international worker pool.

“The construction industry needs workers regardless of origin,” he said. “As a group, we are aging as well. Filling these positions needs to focus on a willingness to work, skillset and/or willingness to learn a trade.”

One helpful thing about the construction trades is that skills are transferable, regardless of where workers come from, according to Stovall. General laborers unload materials, prep job sites and build scaffolding, whether those workers come from Honduras, Oman or Chad. Transferrable skills also can be found among the world’s masons, welders, plumbers or pipefitters.

For an employer like Stovall, the message is less “Show me where you’re from” than it is “Show me what you can do” – and he is eager to meet skilled workers.

Farms at the forefront
At Missouri Berries, co-owner Randy Little said he needs seasonal help he can rely on. He has found one such worker in Michael Muriuki, a Kenya national who has been living and working in the U.S. for six years.

Muriuki spends his days harvesting berries, and he’s a quick hand at it, filling a box in no time flat.

He has other skills as well – like being fluent in three languages. Muriuki is one of a handful of full-time workers at the farm. He has no family in the area, though his mother also lives in the U.S., in California.

Muriuki said he thinks he might like to stay in Missouri.

“I like it out here,” he said, citing the people and the change in seasons as pluses.

Little said Muriuki is a quick learner.

“He’s done a great job,” he said., the nonprofit pro-immigration lobbying group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, reports 73% of agriculture workers in the U.S. are immigrant farmworkers. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates U.S. agriculture needs 1.5 million–2 million hired workers each year.

An aging agricultural workforce and a decline in the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. means this area, too, is facing shortages. Like Stovall, Little said he looks for eligible talent wherever he can.

Health workers
Jessica Atchison, executive director for professional practice with Mercy Springfield Communities, said she is excited about a program newly in place in Springfield to provide immigrant talent to fill voids.

The hospital just took on its first international worker, a Canadian citizen who is actively working as a nurse. Workers from Kenya and the Philippines will start next summer.

“We have not targeted a specific location – it’s pretty broad,” she said. “We’re willing to look at any nationality, working to ensure that we’re a fit for them and they’re a fit for us.”

Atchison said Mercy is taking the long view when it comes to finding talent. The goal is to hire 15 international workers, she said, and with the nurse who has already been onboarded and the others who are preparing to come, the hospital is about a fifth of the way there.

“It is part of that strategy to ensure that we have a stable workforce, knowing that nationally we will continue to have a nursing shortage as we move into the coming years,” she said.

She said 2024 has long been predicted to be a year of massive retirements from hospital professions, and the pandemic sped up that trend. Locally, Atchison said, many people left health professions after the pandemic, but in the last year, Mercy has seen an increase in nurses, with fewer leaving the organization. Mercy leaders have said the health system has hundreds of open positions locally.

Atchison said when people think of international health workers, they tend to think of members of the nursing workforce who hail from the Philippines. However, Mercy has seen candidates from Israel, Dubai, the United Kingdom, several African countries and Canada.

Springfield is appealing to candidates, Atchison said, because it is family friendly with lots of outdoor entertainment options. Mercy corporate has been working for many years with the staffing company O’Grady Peyton International, she said, but Mercy Springfield is just starting with the collaboration.

Atchison said Mercy’s goal is to add one or two international workers to each of its medical-surgical units to broaden their scope.

“They’re typically harder positions to fill, so we’ve really focused in on that,” she said.

Refugee talent
Amber Howard, a clinical instructor in childhood education and family studies at Missouri State University, has been working with Afghan refugees who have escaped war and violence at home.

The website of the International Institute of Southwest Missouri indicates about 100 Afghani refugees have been placed locally.

Howard said her team in MSU’s Removing Barriers program has worked with a mother who was a nurse in her home country and would like to get back to that work, but she first needs to improve her English.

MSU’s English Language Institute and the IISM have provided invaluable support in efforts like these, she said.

Howard said when international people join the workforce, not only do they benefit, but so does the workplace.

“It’s powerful to see people from around the world in workplaces of all sorts,” she said. “It’s also powerful for the children of these families to see themselves represented in a variety of fields and workplaces.”

Howard added that immigrants bring a global mindset that challenges others to think differently.

“Challenging our biases and beliefs is one way we can work towards a more equitable and just world,” she said.

Trombetta said the Missouri Job Center also is working hard to find opportunities for refugees. She cited a recent example of a Ukrainian refugee who came to the U.S. in December and already has completed training to become a truck driver.

“So long as they are legal to be here, we can provide that training for them,” she said.

A $17.5 million grant awarded to the Job Center several months ago pays for training in health care, transportation and logistics, and educational services.

“We’re just now rolling it out,” she said of the program, but noted she expects more success stories in the future.

In Missouri, U.S. Census Bureau figures put the portion of the population that is foreign born at 4.2%, and Springfield’s foreign-born population is 3.3%.


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