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St. Louis Employers Are Struggling To Find Workers, Aren’t Sold On Remote Work

For many out-of-state visitors driving to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is their first glimpse of Missouri.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Valerie Patton of Greater St. Louis Inc. said St. Louis has the talent pool it needs.

Many St. Louis employers are optimistic about plans to hire more full-time workers coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, but the problem is they’re having a hard time finding them.

That’s one of the key findings of St. Louis Community College’s annual State of the Workforce report published on Wednesday. It includes survey responses from more than 500 area employers in 23 industries that are representative of the local economy.

Chuck Gascon, a regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, spoke at a virtual event on Wednesday introducing the report.

He said the regional unemployment rate has dropped significantly, to 4.7% in April from a peak of 11.6% at the same time last year. But he said many people dropped out of the workforceand still haven’t returned. That population disproportionately consists of women and people of color.

Gascon said the labor market isn’t expected to fully recover until next year. Without population growth, he said, employers will need to be more strategic about growing talent.

“Finding people on the sidelines and bringing them back in is really the key lever at this point for expanding the labor force in the St. Louis metropolitan area,” he said.

The survey also found that most employers aren’t sold on remote work.

That’s one of the biggest takeaways for Hart Nelson, who helped author the report. He’s also the associate vice chancellor of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group.

The share of employers with remote workers dropped from about 60% to 23% within a year. And of those, more than 40% said they plan to reduce remote work in the next year.

Nelson said that could be because survey respondents include many small and mid-size businesses in the construction and health care industries. He said the “end of office” trend is more common in professional services, like law and financial firms. Also, the survey was conducted between May and June, before the coronavirus delta variant began to spread rapidly across the state.

But Nelson said not offering remote work options could become a bigger issue for local employers struggling to find workers.

“It started off as a public health response — we’ve got to keep people safe,” he said. “But now it becomes we can’t get people in the door, and the only way we’re going to be able to do that is if we offer them some flexibility in their working environment. And remote work is one of those.”

Nelson said employers have fewer worries over COVID-19 in the future. The No. 1 concern cited by employers is retaining and hiring employees. Some are trying to counteract that by raising wages and looking outside the region for new workers.

But Valerie Patton, chief diversity equity and inclusion officer of Greater St. Louis Inc., said the talent is already in St. Louis.

Patton is featured in the report connecting the dots between current labor challenges and a 10-year jobs plan her organization released earlier this year. She said the key to hiring more people is focusing on building a more equitable economy for existing residents.

“I am hopeful that we can begin to examine our systems that have created barriers and biases, correct those systems and then really move people into the opportunity,” she said.

Patton said employers should start by rethinking hiring practices.

“How their job descriptions are written, how they recruit, where they recruit, what does a job really entail?” she said. “And then look at a broader brush of individuals that could be able to fill those jobs.”

Patton said the region needs to increase the number of Black workers with quality jobs, defined as those that pay 80% or more of the national median salary — or at least $40,000 a year.

She said that will lead to increased home ownership, generational wealth and a stronger economy.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.