Despite gains in tech, Kansas City and Missouri face severe workforce shortage

More than 1.6 million Missouri Baby Boomers are expected to retire over the next 20 years, but only 1.4 million young workers will replace them — if they don't move away.

And Missouri is losing young workers. Between 1990 and 2016, the state's population ages 25 to 44 dropped 3.1 percent. Across the U.S., it grew by 5.1 percent. Missouri employers are concerned they won't be able to get skilled workers.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry this week released a report, Workforce 2030, outlining a concerning look at the future of the Missouri economy. The solution the report offers is a series of new and expanded workforce development proposals to attract workers to the state.

"There are a lot of places across America who are already heavily in talent attraction," said report co-author Ted Abernathy, the managing partner of North Carolina-based Economic Leadership LLC.

Missouri could fall behind those places, including Texas, Florida, Oregon, Indiana, Georgia and the Carolinas, the report said. Workforce is a concern in many communities, including neighbor Kansas.

Statewide concerns over Missouri’s workforce drew "unprecedented" attention from lawmakers during this year's session, said the chamber's vice president of communications, Karen Buschman.

Legislators passed several chamber-backed bills, including one allowing students to take computer science to fulfill a math or science credit in high school. The bill, which was also sponsored by the KC Tech Council, was passed in an effort to boost students' interest in computer science.

“Our goal is someday that every student in every school has at least access to computer science courses," said Ryan Weber, president of the KC Tech Council.

The chamber also supported fully funding the state's K-12 foundation formula and preventing cuts to Missouri's colleges and universities proposed by Gov. Eric Greitens.

The report recommends better communication between government and employers to understand workforce needs and a series of overhauls to tailor education programs to the needs of the workforce, like creating opportunities for short-term educational opportunities and credentials in high-demand skills and aligning schools' curriculum with the needs of industries.

Several programs are getting it right, according to the report, and should be expanded. The Missouri Department of Corrections offers WorkKeys standardized assessments to inmates before release to help them get jobs when they return to the community. Shelle Jacobs, the department's re-entry coordinator, said the assessment, which is administered by the ACT, tells employers that inmates are ready to be successful employees.

"They're smart. They're skilled. They're capable," Jacobs said. "They just need a way to prove it."

Workforce 2030 recommends that the program be run statewide. Jacobs said the state releases more than 19,000 inmates each year. Since 2015, the department has been able to test only 1,500.

In the Northland, eight districts offer a center for advanced professional studies, or CAPS, program. Northland CAPS allows high school juniors and seniors to get real-world job experiences and hold internships. For college-bound students, the program offers dual credit. High school students who don't plan to go to college can often get hired right out of their CAPS internship, said Northland CAPS executive director Sandy Henshaw.

“It’s an easy pipeline then for these kids to come right into that environment with a job when they graduate from college," Henshaw said.

Students in the past have built an app for the Smithville Police Department and helped develop a marketing plan for the Kansas City Streetcar.

In Kansas City, the KC Tech Council sees a better outlook, but still needs workers.

According to research from real estate firm CBRE highlighted in the Tech Council's 2018 Tech Specs report, Kansas City gained more than 11,300 last year, putting it ahead of hot spots such as Austin, Texas; Nashville; Denver; and San Diego.

Only Silicon Valley, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston and New York outpaced Kansas City.

Even so, Weber said the metro isn't attracting enough workers.

"And nobody is — even San Francisco," he said.

Weber added, "There's just not enough talent anywhere in the country to fulfill the needs of the industry."

The council backed the computer science bill, but another solution, Weber said, is to celebrate what Kansas City is doing right, like paying female tech workers as much as their male counterparts. In Kansas City, women make 2 percent more than men in tech jobs. The industry, Weber said, is still short on women.

“That’s something we should really be screaming from the mountaintop that this is a good place for a woman to have a tech career," Weber said.

The "clear consequence" if Kansas City doesn't attract enough tech workers is that companies will look elsewhere for tech jobs, Weber said.

"That is a concern that I think about on a daily basis, where one of our own won't believe that Kansas City is going to provide for the demand of our workforce, and that's the greatest consequence," Weber said.