Regional efforts focus on stemming losses, retraining workers

Monday, December 31, 2007

By Linda Redeffer

Business today

Terry Swinford separated cut metal sections from scrap while on the job at Schaefer's Electrical Enclosures in Advance, Mo. Schaefer's plans to move to Cape Girardeau. (Kit Doyle)

Employment in Southeast Missouri seems to be holding its own -- improving in some areas and hanging on in others.

"We have had some plant closures and business layoffs in the past 24 months in the Bootheel region," commented Buz Sutherland, director of the Southeast Missouri Economic Development Alliance at the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.

In particular, jobs are down in Mississippi, Stoddard and New Madrid Counties.

Figures provided by the Missouri Department of Economic Development show that 156 jobs were lost in Mississippi County between 2006 and 2007, 99 in Stoddard County, and 73 jobs were lost in the same time in New Madrid County.

It's difficult to say how those numbers were reached, Sutherland said. Specifically it's hard to know if those jobs were actually in those counties or if the numbers reflect unemployment of people who live in those counties but worked elsewhere.

In the extreme southern part of Missouri where unemployment is highest, the losses came from industrial and manufacturing jobs that either closed up or moved out of the country. No matter where they were, layoffs impact an entire region, Sutherland said.

"We have Dana Corporation in Cape County," he said. "So many people who live south of Cape County worked there and are impacted. We lost Rowe Furniture in Poplar Bluff, Federal Mogul in Malden, Emerson Electric in Kennett. A couple of losses are in extreme Northeast Arkansas where a lot of Missouri folk worked at."

The numbers also don't take into account the number of secondary jobs that are lost as a result of the initial loss, Sutherland said.

Elsewhere in Southeast Missouri the employment picture is a little brighter. While communities may mourn the loss of industrial and factory jobs that often sustained generations of a family, the jobs that are taking their place require a different set of skills.

Farmington and Cape Girardeau each benefited from the addition of a call center. DED figures show a boost of 350 jobs in St. Francois County and an additional 199 in Cape Girardeau County.

"A great deal of that has been from Accent Marketing Services," said Farmington Chamber of Commerce director Ursula Kthiri.

Accent located there a couple of years ago, Kthiri said, and this year began ramping up their hiring and production.

"I think Accent is at about 600 employees right now," she said.

Growth in St. Francois County can also be credited to a healthy economy to build on.

"We have many, many small businesses, individual jobs that collectively add up," Kthiri said. "I don't think there's another big factor like Accent, but just continued growth and expansion."

John Mehner, president and CEO of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce said the addition of NARS is probably reflected in the Cape Girardeau County numbers, along with sustained growth in existing business.

"The vast majority of our jobs is created from small businesses adding on here and there," Mehner said.

Southeast Missouri seems to be following the national trend, Sutherland said.

To stem the flow of jobs out of the area, agencies such as the Southeast Missouri Economic Development Alliance, Cape Girardeau Area MAGNET, the Workforce Investment Board of Southeast Missouri and the Southeast Missouri Small Business Development Agency are joining together to seek state and federal money to retrain workers. The goal of the retraining is to make people more competitive in a global workforce, to promote small business ownership and entrepreneurship, and to aid employers in keeping up with training and meeting the economic needs of the area. Agencies and employers are learning to narrow their focus on what they need to do, he said, instead of taking a "shotgun" approach to the unemployment problem.

Of greatest importance, he said, is education. Jobs are becoming more technical, specialized, and require more skills than previous factory jobs, and preparing for that takes time.

"When you talk about economic development you're not talking about overnight," Mehner said. "You're talking about building from K-12, post-secondary and the so-called incumbent worker, making sure they're lifelong learners. That's an issue. If we're not learners, we're going to get behind."

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