Opinion: Workforce struggles highlight quality of place value

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For a long time, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and its economic development arm, the Springfield Business Development Corp., have said that creating jobs will bring people to our area and help make the Springfield region a better place to live.

But national workforce shortages have made the task of creating jobs much more difficult, as employers across the country are having difficulty finding enough people to hire for existing job openings, let alone newly created jobs.

Springfield is no exception to the national trend. Even factoring the ongoing economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic, Springfield’s metro unemployment rate is at historic lows, hovering around 3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

This is a dual-edged sword. Nearly anyone who wants a job can find one, but employers that also are looking to grow can’t access enough people to sustain that growth. The data bear this out comparing numbers from the initial shock of the pandemic to today. Springfield’s five-county metropolitan statistical area reported 16% growth in number of jobs since then, but only 6% growth in the number of people in the workforce, according to the BLS. This is creating intense pressure.

This problem is not new: Workforce shortages were a challenge before the pandemic, and long-term demographic trends point to this challenge continuing for decades.

So how do we address the issue? In recent years, our approach to economic development has evolved – mainly because we also know that investing in quality of place will keep more people here and bring more people to our region. This will help businesses grow and encourage companies looking to expand or relocate to consider the Springfield region, knowing our growth will help meet the demand for employees.

Part of Springfield’s success in tackling this issue will be demonstrated in population growth, as more people moving here means more people added to the labor force to fill the jobs of growing companies. Natural population increase (births minus deaths) is slowing, both nationwide and in Springfield. But the good news is according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Springfield metro area added almost 4,000 people last year, and 80% of that growth came from net migration.

However, Springfield’s average annual growth rate over the last three years is just under 1%, according to census data. This is above the national average for metro areas, but we need to grow faster to meet the needs of employers and to compete with other similarly sized metro areas regionally and nationally. Springfield’s growth is being outpaced by many of the communities the chamber has studied on recent Community Leadership Visits, including Fort Collins, Colorado; Huntsville, Alabama; and Boise, Idaho, as well as by our neighbors to the south in northwest Arkansas.

We’ve definitely made progress in several areas that make us attractive to those looking to relocate. Springfield ranks second among all midsize metro areas in the country on pay to minority workers, according to Self magazine, and our foreign-born population is up by 25% since the last census, according to economic development nonprofit Heartland Forward. In addition, USA Today named the area a Top 20 Magnet for Young People.

Much of our community’s future success will depend on the progress of several potentially transformative projects. The Grant Avenue Parkway project, the efforts of Renew Jordan Creek, installation of gigabit Internet access throughout the city and youth sports complexes are just a few examples of initiatives that will dramatically improve our quality of life.

But while those projects are cause for celebration, now is not the time to coast. Now is the time to double down and become a national success story for attracting new residents with our quality of place. And that means everyone needs to get involved, whether it’s offering feedback and input on the city’s Forward SGF comprehensive planning process, signing up for the recently created Clean Green Springfield initiative or joining a placemaking-based group like Ozark Greenways or Friends of the Garden. 

Springfield is on the cusp of great things – which can really put us on the map as a national success story. But that success will require all of us to step forward and take ownership of our community. It’s time to not just consume all that Springfield has to offer, but to help create it.

Ryan Mooney is senior vice president for economic development with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at ryan@springfieldchamber.com.