By Nathan Rubbelke, St. Louis Business Journal | March 30, 2023
Zekita Armstrong Asuquo already had started efforts to begin her own nonprofit workforce development agency. She had a name in mind, but wasn’t sure yet which industry it’d direct its focus.
Then, in 2016, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced plans to relocate its western headquarters from Soulard to a new campus in north St. Louis, she had her answer: Geospatial technology.
“I decided that was the opportunity for being able to create something really wonderful for young people in the region so they could get ahead of the game in terms of skills, credentialing and in preparation for what is now a rapidly growing sector in our region,” said Asuquo, founder of Gateway Global, her nonprofit workforce development company that trains people for careers in geospatial.
St. Louis in recent years has placed a focus on growing through its growing technology sector, particularly in biosciences and geospatial technology. It’s a field that includes many roles that require advanced degrees and science expertise. But for it to grow, workforce development officials said they need to be focused on ensuring individuals know the barrier for entry isn’t always that high.
The geospatial sector already accounts for 6,600-plus jobs locally, according to a 2020 report, a figure that’s expected to grow in the coming years as civic leaders seek to grow the industry's presence locally.
Gateway Global offers a geospatial intelligence program that trains teenagers and young adults for technician and junior analyst positions, roles that come with starting salaries roughly around $30,000 and $50,000, respectively. Despite those starting salaries and the industry’s prospects for growth, Asuquo says some still aren’t aware that careers are accessible in the industry.
“We play a pivotal role in that, just creating the awareness of what the opportunities are,” she said.
Justin Raymundo, director of workforce strategy at local innovation hub BioSTL, said he believes St. Louis already has a “world-class workforce” thanks to regional assets like Washington University, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and its growing entrepreneurial economy.
“If we just look at that, we’re doing great,” Raymundo said. “St. Louis has a lot of talent that’s driving this forward, but I think where we need to do a better job is how to make the economic benefits of a really strong bioscience ecosystem is shared to all people in St. Louis,”
Key to that, Raymundo said, will be promoting the career opportunity available and creating “on ramps” to employment for individuals who think they may not be qualified to work in roles with technology and bioscience companies. The opportunities are there, with a report released last year by BioSTL finding 47% of the biosciences job openings expected in the next decade won’t require four-year degrees. That figure accounts for so-called “middle-skill jobs,” which are positions that usually require a two-year associate’s degree, postsecondary certification or on-the-job training. The highest concentration of middle-skill bioscience jobs locally are in the biomanufacturing field, including roles like packaging machine operator and chemical equipment operators.
An effort is underway to “centralize” workforce development initiatives in the biosciences to expand training the hiring demands. BioSTL last month announced it has received a $2 million grant to create “Biotech for Mo,” a project seeking to form a hub to train at least 350 workers through partnerships with education, industry, government and community organizations.
Training initiatives are also increasing in the geospatial sector. The newly formed Taylor Geospatial Institute unveiled plans in January to create a new academy program designed to provide training on geospatial technology to both the future and current workforce.
At BioSTL, Raymundo said the new “Biotech for Mo” initiative has placed a focus on community partnership, seeking to provide individuals with “wrap around” services, including childcare and transportation, to help them complete training programs.
“We talk about it in terms of closing both the skills gap and the opportunity gap,” Raymundo said. “We know that we have to close the opportunity gap by ensuring quality support.”
In the geospatial sector, Asuquo said closing the opportunity gap involves meeting potential workforce trainees “where they are.” Gateway Global has teamed up with NGA to host workshops at high schools that include presentations about the geospatial industry and the possibilities it has for careers in areas like defense and homeland security.
“That is how we get them excited,” she said. “We speak to the things they care about and show them how they can use the skill or technology to make a difference in that space.”