When companies are considering a relocation to Columbia, Chamber of Commerce President Matt McCormick wants the city to be sending them a very clear message.

“We’re open for business,” McCormick says. “We want your company here. We want you to be able to thrive and grow here and be successful here.”

There’s a potential problem with that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from July, Columbia has an unemployment rate of just 2.9 percent. That’s lower than the 3.4 percent the state of Missouri posted as a whole and also comes in under the state’s other major labor markets: Kansas City (3.9 percent), St. Louis (3.8 percent), Springfield (3.1 percent), and St. Joseph (3.4 percent).

Sure, low unemployment is one of those “good” problems to have, but it can be a problem nonetheless for companies hoping to potentially draw from the pool of available labor in Columbia.

It’s not a very big pool.

“We’ve seen a mix of companies bringing some people with them, but also not just looking at Columbia as far as their employment base,” McCormick says. “They look at the region, the area, the county, a multicounty region where they can recruit people from, with that drivability and people being able to get to their jobs. . . . With that growth comes, ‘How do we make sure we do have the skilled labor to be able to fill those jobs?’”

So “workforce readiness” is more than just a catchy phrase for McCormick and Columbia’s other business leaders. For the purposes of Columbia employers — current and potential — the operative part of workforce readiness is the ready availability of laborers in the market that have the necessary knowledge, training, and skills to work in their specific industries.

If you’re a health center moving into an area with a scarcity of nurse training programs, for example, you might want to reconsider. If you’re a large manufacturer moving into an area that has made its living off of retail for the past four or five decades, you might be hurting for available employees capable of operating your machinery.

Columbia already has a number of things going for it as a destination for new business, McCormick says. The schools and hospitals are top-notch, the quality of living is high, and the cost of living is about seven percent below the national average. The city has a diverse economy, McCormick says, so its employees have skills that translate to a myriad of industries.

“We’re not just relying on one type of business. We have a multitude of types of businesses,” McCormick says. “We’re not just relying on retail or education or manufacturing.”

Still, there are some sectors that seemingly always need more trained applicants: nursing, for example. And new development opportunities also mean new demands on a region’s workforce.

American Outdoor Brands is expected to finish its 500,000-square-foot distribution center on Route Z this month, bringing more than 300 jobs to Boone County. Aurora Organic Dairy expects its Columbia milk processing plant to be operational by early next year, meaning more than 100 new jobs. The demand for manufacturing is rather high.

“That’s probably one of the areas we were a little lighter in: manufacturing, light manufacturing, and the distribution centers,” McCormick says.

3M anticipated this need about five years ago. In 2013, the manufacturing company went to REDI with a desire for more area workers trained in the industry. In turn, REDI approached Moberly Area Community College to see if it had any degree programs aimed at that sector. It didn’t, so the three entities set about creating the “mechatronics” course of study, housed at the Columbia Higher Education Center at Parkade Center. MACC began offering the Associate of Applied Science in Mechatronics degree in January 2014, which teaches the electrical, mechanical, and computer skills needed for manufacturing plant technicians.

Since then, demand for the degree has grown so much that MACC has expanded it into another, similar offering called advanced manufacturing technology. It has the same first year of courses as mechatronics, but branches more into machining, welding, and other related skills in the second year.

“Mechatronics was the first program that was built and designed for Columbia employers,” says Jo Fey, the MACC dean of workforce development and technical education. “We convened a large group of Columbia manufacturers who then designed the degree. They designed the degree, came up with the skills needed and then, through collaboration, we came up with the title and used plant managers and people who actually are hands-on in the maintenance jobs to design the courses that we have.”

MACC currently offers 34 career and technical education courses at its Columbia campus. They cover subjects such as information technology, business administration, early childhood education, surgical technology, and phlebotomy.

The trend, Fey says, has moved toward offering supplemental options in addition to the prescribed course of study — specialized certification and training courses that aren’t necessarily for college credit, but that attendees need for joining or advancing in the workforce. It’s a common occurrence for Fey to get a call from a distribution center saying it needs a customized skills training course for its employees.

MACC is happy to oblige.

MACC is also part of a group of Missouri community colleges called MoSTEMWINs that focuses on career readiness education and training in manufacturing, information technology, health sciences, and science support. The program is funded by grant money from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

“We all work together to design those programs and make them available to students to work with employers directly,” Fey says. “That’s probably as important as anything — that we have been developing our partnerships with employers and asking them what they need and then designing the programs around what employers need.”

After all, who knows more about the immediate needs of area employers than the companies doing the hiring?

“We’ve got more jobs than we have qualified people for certain jobs, sometimes,” McCormick says. “So it’s being creative on how do we find people, how do we bring people in, how do we work with different entities to train people to get them to the skill set so that they can take advantage of the great job opportunities that are out there?”

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