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  ·   By Ashley A. Smith, Inside Higher ED   ·  Link to Article

Keeping Close Tabs on the Local Job Market

Every year St. Louis Community College surveys the region's employers to get a better picture of the area's work-force needs.

A growing number of colleges have bulked up their job-market research amid growing pressure from the public and policy makers for higher education to do more to improve wages and opportunities for working-class people. Community colleges in particular are feeling this scrutiny.

Administrators at St. Louis Community College view the report as one part of how it seeks to stand out as a leader in work-force development.

"The fact is the community college has its pulse on the economy and the job market," said Steve Long, associate vice chancellor of work-force solutions for the college. "In a larger sense, part of the value of this report is in communication with the employer community, job-training community, the federal network of training programs, and government and community-based organizations, that we need to work together to solve these issues."

The 2017 report found that 42 percent of responding employers anticipate increasing the number of employees, while only 2 percent expect to decrease their staffs. But nearly 60 percent of employers reported shortcomings in the applications they receive for open positions. In particular, employers complained about inadequate soft skills of job candidates, including interpersonal skills, critical thinking, problem solving, work ethic and teamwork.

The college surveyed more than 1,000 employers in the St. Louis region and compiled the information with federal labor market data.

Middle-skills jobs, or those that require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year degree, are important in the St. Louis region. According to the National Skills Coalition, 53 percent of all jobs in the state in 2015 were of the middle-skill variety. Nationally, these jobs account for 53 percent of openings.

These professions include skilled trades, industrial maintenance, precision machining, health care and nursing. Yet nearly half of people over the age of 25 in the St. Louis region have a high school diploma but no college degree, according to the report.

However, the report also revealed that 70 percent of employers have jobs open that require only short-term training, or training that could be completed within six months of finishing high school.

"Students come into these short-term accelerated programs and they ask how quickly can they get a job," Long said. "We have to counsel them that you have to get the skills before you get the job, and some students choose to not go forward."

For those students who do choose to stay, the college has worked on integrating soft skills into the curriculum to address employers’ concerns about problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

"We try to embed those in our short-term accelerated programs," Long said, "and we try to talk to the faculty of degree and certificate programs about doing the same."

The National Skills Coalition has been advocating for changes in program eligibility for federal Pell Grantfunding so short-term programs can qualify for financial aid, the lack of which can be a barrier for some students who seek to become certified in a skilled trade.

"A lot of these short-term occupational programs have smaller class sizes and need more equipment, so it's expensive," said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition. "It's not like running another section of English compositions, so we think it's important from financial aid perspective to make these programs more accessible."

Despite the work-force needs by St. Louis-area employers, the unemployment rate in the region is particularly low -- 4.2 percent as of May -- which means recruiting students to apply for middle-skilled jobs isn't easy.

"In Missouri, the unemployment rate you usually hear about is 4 percent, but when you look at the larger unemployment rate or the rate for people who are working part-time for economic conditions, but want to work full-time, it's 9 percent," Long said. "There is a whole generation of young people, by income and race, who really have not been fully attached to the labor market."

That trend appears nationally, as well, with the unemployment rate at 4.3 percent as of July.

"We see people are making a set of choices based on their need to work and feed their families," Kaleba said. "They're making the choice between an available job that pays less, but they can start right away, or going and enrolling in a community college program where you may get to a higher wage and has, longer term, better outcomes, but it's three months, six months, or 12 months down the line."

And colleges are going to have to be creative if they want to reach out to those young people, Long said.

"The middle-skill labor market and training market is not well advertised and communicated for a lot of job seekers," Kaleba said. "There are a lot of pathways with community colleges, union-run programs, apprenticeship programs, and there is confusion about the pathways to get the training and education. We don't talk about those job opportunities as much as we should."