By Jack Grone, St. Louis Magazine | April 18, 2022
“Join Our Team. Great Benefits!”
If you’ve seen lots of signs like these around St. Louis recently, you’re not alone. Like other places across the country emerging from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the metro area is awash with job openings, with not enough workers to fill them. Some of the most visible vacancies are for jobs like restaurant waitstaff and bus drivers, but the list goes on and on, including truck drivers, healthcare aides, diesel mechanics, lab technicians, and so forth.
To help meet this need for workers with specialized skills—a need that existed well before COVID—state and county officials are planning to make a big bet on the Metropolitan Education and Training (MET) Center in Wellston. Housed in a six-story former electrical equipment factory just a few minutes north of the Delmar Loop and adjacent to the Wellston Metrolink stop, the center works with more than 30 partner organizations including St. Louis Community College and the Special School District to offer training programs in job sectors such as transportation and logistics, construction, manufacturing, financial services, and healthcare. At any given time, workers trained at the MET Center might be employed at 300 or 400 companies in the metro area, says Carolyn Seward, chief executive of Family and Workforce Centers of America, which operates the center. Examples include pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer and plant research company KWS.
“Those employers work with us to make sure our curriculum is always relevant; they provide internships and then jobs at the end of the day,” Seward says.
Last year, 465 people attended the MET Center’s training programs, either virtually or in person, and the center matched 1,402 people with jobs at an average wage of $17.32 an hour, Seward says. The MET Center assisted many thousands more via education and skills assessments that determine eligibility for its training programs and help people decide which types of jobs could be the best fit.
In June, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a budget that includes $4 million to help the center expand its activities. County Executive Sam Page and County Council Chair Rita Heard Days have both said they hope to match that amount as part of negotiations among council members over how to spend $74 million of the county’s own ARPA money. Those negotiations are ongoing.
By using the ARPA money to make physical upgrades to the MET Center’s facility and expand its training programs, the center could almost double the number of clients in its training programs, Seward says.
The center also provides counseling services and coaching in “soft skills” to prepare people for the world of work.
“We were one of the first to begin to integrate mental health, financial education, housing issues, [and] issues with legal services into workforce development programs,” Seward notes.
The shortage of workers in sectors like diesel mechanics underscores the headwinds facing older cities like St. Louis, which has an aging workforce in mechanical jobs. At the same time, it points to opportunities presented by the region’s status as a major logistics hub linking trucking with rail and river transport, says Phyllis Ellison, associate vice chancellor of the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College.
“Diesel is everything trucking, and trucking is all of our delivery and supply-chain challenges that we’re having,” Ellison says, adding that when companies have trouble getting new trucks, repairing the existing ones becomes even more vital.
And it’s not just mechanics. The trucking industry needs plenty more people who can drive rigs, too. The 2021 edition of STLCC’s State of the St. Louis Workforce Report noted there were more than 10,000 online job ads last year seeking drivers for heavy and tractor-trailer trucks. For jobs that require a middle level of education or skills training (less than a four-year college degree), this was second only to ads seeking registered nurses, which totaled over 21,000. (The 2022 report is due out at the end of August.)
The surging demand for workers and ongoing restrictions caused by the pandemic mean some of STLCC’s skills-training programs have waiting lists, Ellison says. These include entry-level healthcare programs and skills training for manufacturing and industrial jobs.
A separate labor market analysis in March from nonprofit BioSTL noted 47 percent of current job openings in the St. Louis bioscience industry (which employs over 19,000 people) were for middle-skill jobs, mainly in manufacturing and sales.
Ellison points out that 34 percent of the region’s workforce has a high-school degree or less, with no additional training. “To me, that is where we have a huge opportunity for skilling up,” she says.
At the same time, a big challenge will be figuring out how to structure those training programs—by offering stipends to the participants, for example—so that people most in need of training will actually be able to take advantage of it. Many workers can’t afford to leave a steady paycheck to take a two-month skills course, even if it could eventually lead to a higher-paying job.
Says Ellison: “If your choice is between putting food on the table and going to training, your choice is going to be putting food on the table.”