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St. Louis’ economic future requires a lot more trained workers and fast

Aiden Johnson looks left at an aluminum block Lemola Mason is holding in front of the panel of a CNC milling machine.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Lemola Mason, left, and Aiden Johnson discuss the CNC mill machine settings for an assignment at Southwestern Illinois College's Sam Wolf Campus last month in Granite City. Mason and Johnson are students in the community college's precision machining program.

The St. Louis region has staked a significant portion of its future economic development on technologies and industries that are still emerging.

To make this bet on things like geospatial, advanced manufacturing and agtech successful, the region will need many more workers ready to enter those fields when employers come calling.

“We want the talent pipeline to be so rich and robust that they have hundreds of candidates applying for these open opportunities,” said Rung for Women President Leslie Gill.

Her organization trains women in the St. Louis region who want to transition careers into sectors like geospatial, technology and advanced manufacturing.

To Gill, now is the time to expand these kinds of workforce development options, especially before things like the new National Geospatial Intelligence Agency campus and Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center open in north St. Louis in the coming years.

“So that NGA is like, ‘Man, St. Louis was ready,’” she said. “They had people who were knocking on our door for these jobs, they were well trained and interested in the jobs that we had available.”

The same sentiment applies to the other industries St. Louis is betting its future on, she added.

With that in mind, the region is pouring resources into the organizations and institutions that can quickly build up the workforce it will need.

Aluminum shavings fly away from block in a CNC mill.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Aluminum shavings fly away from block in a CNC Mill in one of Southwestern Illinois College's machining labs last month in Granite City. The college is also expanding its advanced manufacturing curriculum in Belleville.

Expanding advanced manufacturing

Last year’s $25 million regional Build Back Better Grant to expand the area’s advanced manufacturing industry is supporting Rung for Women and financially supporting new training facilities at St. Louis Community College and Southwestern Illinois College.

SWIC already teaches its students how to operate the automated CNC mills that have become the industry standard, said Mark Bosworth, the community college’s industrial technology coordinator.

“These machines are really the start of anything that anybody really does every day,” he said. “Aircraft parts, so for the fighter jets, the commercial planes. The medical industry, dental and eye surgery parts.”

The community college is adding instruction on even more advanced machines that can easily produce something like a hip transplant bone, Bosworth said. The money SWIC has received to bolster its programs is also helping to introduce robots to the manufacturing process, he said.

“It’s kind of like lights-out manufacturing; we want our students to be able to program robots, set up a whole machining cell, basically,” Bosworth said. “That’s where the industry is going: more advanced.”

Future prospects for current students appear bright. SWIC gets multiple calls a week from companies wanting to hire its students, Bosworth said.

Current students see this, too.

“I’ve heard a lot of places that are hiring and really looking for machinists to come there and work,” said SWIC student Lemola Mason, who’s also a CNC machinist at Seyer. “Where I work now, a lot of people there are getting ready to retire, so it’s a lot of openings coming up too.”

For Mason, automated manufacturing wasn’t something on his radar until his aunt recommended the program at SWIC to him, he said.

“She thought I’d be interested in it, and I just kind of clicked with it,” he said. “This has been one of the greatest things ever, like a turning point in life where this is exactly what I want to do.”

Mason’s experience highlights the dilemma St. Louis faces in its bid to expand advanced manufacturing.

“We’re going to start seeing this trend of folks aging out, moving into retirement,” Gill said. “There really hasn’t been a concerted effort to position the sector as a growth sector for the region.”

The Rung for Women headquarters on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood. Rung for Women offers “the resources, space and community for women who are ready to work toward the career and the life they deserve,” according to their website.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Rung for Women headquarters is based in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood. Rung for Women offers “the resources, space and community for women who are ready to work toward the career and the life they deserve,” according to its website.

Gill said there are plenty of high-quality jobs in manufacturing and the other sectors her organization trains women for that don’t require years of education or an advanced degree. The bigger challenge is changing the narrative around them to one that highlights them as viable options for career growth for local residents, she said.

That shift requires the broad ecosystem of regional organizations involved in workforce training to collaborate more closely, said Jill Bernard Bracy, acting director of the supply chain risk and resilience research institute at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That includes trade schools, community colleges, universities, nonprofits and specific companies, she said.

“Getting them involved immediately on the skills that are going to be needed for those particular industries, and making sure that there are relationships and collaboration,” Bracy said.

It also helps in building a resilient talent supply that reacts to changing conditions, she said.

“If you want to attract economic development to the area, one of the selling points is that we have talent for you to bring whatever your respective business, industry here,” Bracy said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives remarks to kick off St. Louis' inaugural Tech Week on Monday, April 24, 2023, at World Wide Technology's world headquarters in Maryland Heights.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives remarks to kick off St. Louis' inaugural Tech Week last week at World Wide Technology's world headquarters in Maryland Heights.

'Double the tech workforce'

This is something that is not entirely the case for the St. Louis tech scene, which touches many of the sectors regional leaders anticipate will grow rapidly in coming years.

There are about 38,000 open tech jobs that aren’t being filled, said Emily Hemingway, executive director of Tech STL, a member-based tech council that advocates for the industry.

“We need to, in essence, double the tech workforce,” she said. “We don’t have enough people who are going through the tech training pipeline in order to fill these jobs.”

Hemingway argues the region is ready to make this kind of investment, especially considering the success of the region’s recent Tech Week, which her organization spearheaded.

“It gave us a chance to draw out all of the community and look at how there is opportunity in St. Louis around tech education, tech jobs, tech startups, new networking, new innovation,” she said. “If we aren’t talking about it, if we aren’t celebrating it, people won’t know.”

But a harsher reality remains. Many of the open tech positions aren’t ripe for those who already live in the region, Hemingway said.

“Frankly, the St. Louis residents don’t have as fair of a shot at landing these jobs, and we need to fix that,” she said. “That’s a 10 to 20 year timeline to have an aggressive strategy for impacting that space, but it’s definitely worth the investment and the effort.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.