HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Recent economic development studies in Northeast Missouri show two overarching trends: A large percentage of the workforce is underemployed, and many employers have trouble finding applicants with the right skills.
Colorful graphics in one report show that about one out of four workers in the region is underemployed.
Corey Mehaffy of the Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council said there are lots of jobs available right now and several training programs that can help workers upgrade their skills.
"Sometimes on Facebook I see people make comments asking ‘who's hiring' and the immediate thing I want to say is ‘who's not hiring?' " Mehaffy said.
Even with unemployment rates at, or near, historic lows there are lots of job vacancies.
"All our employers, not just in our area but across the nation, are finding it difficult to find qualified workers," Mehaffy said.
Working together, economic development directors in Northeast Missouri funded a study that shows there's a multi-county workforce of 82,082. And 21,049 of those workers are considered "underemployed" because they've either got low wages, no benefits or have skills that should make them eligible for better employment.
Other data back up the region's workforce portrait. The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development issued a similar report this year that collected information on 16 counties in Northeast Missouri.
Within the study area there were 12,115 jobs in health care and social assistance during 2018, with average annual wages of $33,648. Manufacturing employed 10,776 last year, with average wages of $46,704, and educational services was in third place with 9,773 workers earning an average of $43,176.
On the lower end of the wage scale, there were 9,725 workers in the retail trade with average wages of $22,776 and 6,502 in accommodations and food services earning an average of $12,792.
Brent Meyer, director of the Hannibal Career and Technical Center, has 932 students enrolled in classes such as welding, building trades or cosmetology who hope to get a head start on their careers. High school students attending HCTC come from seven school districts: Canton, Hannibal, Highland, Marion County, Mark Twain, Monroe City and Palmyra.
At age 41, Meyer has seen how career training has become much more popular.
"When I graduated (from high school) it was a college-for-all mentality," Meyer said.
The problem came when job markets got saturated with more people with a particular skill set than needed. Meyer said four-year degree holders with $50,000 or more in student debt then found it hard to catch up financially when they were forced to accept low-skill jobs.
"We try to tell students to determine their goals and work toward that end. We're not saying people shouldn't get four-year degrees, but if that is not a requirement for the job they want, we ask why it's necessary," Meyer said.
Brandi Glover, executive director of workforce development at Moberly Area Community College, said the Hannibal campus works in partnership with some area employers and HCTC to train adults for high-demand jobs.
MACC has seen recent changes in how students seek certification or degree programs that match career goals. Among the popular choices are certified production technician or mechatronics training that can help people in factory settings.
"We've seen a shift more toward people concerned about underemployement, since not so many people are unemployed," Glover said.
There also are programs to help workers upgrade their skills. Mehaffy said one state program helps pay for the gap between what classes cost and what a federal program will pay.
Mehaffy also has seen a trend toward better data to help economic development officials in smaller communities. Studies, such as those on his website, haven't been available for long. He said 10 or 15 years ago it would have been far too expensive to come up with the statistics that he now has at his fingertips. Those reports on the workforce are especially helpful when businesses look for new sites.
"They used to have data available for bigger communities, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics didn't drill down into rural area data. So either it wasn't available, or it was older data that companies didn't trust," Mehaffy said. "Now we're getting real-time data and it helps."
Mehaffy just wishes it was easier to let underemployed workers know they've got options and there are better jobs available.