St. Louis County wants to bet big on this vocational training center

“Ask for help.”

“Drivers needed.”

“Join our team. Great benefits!”

If you’ve seen a lot of signs like these around St. Louis lately, you’re not alone. Like other places across the country emerging from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the metro area is teeming with job openings, with not enough workers to fill them. Some of the most visible vacancies are for jobs such as restaurant waiters and bus drivers, but the list goes on and on, including truck drivers, orderlies, diesel mechanics, technicians laboratory, etc.

To help meet this need for workers with specialized skills — a need that existed long before COVID — state and county officials plan to do a big bet on the Metropolitan Center for Education and Training (MET) at Wellington. Housed in a six-story former electrical equipment factory just minutes north of the Delmar Loop and adjacent to the Wellston Metrolink stop, the center works with more than 30 partner organizations, including St. Louis Community College and the Special School District to provide training programs in employment sectors such as transportation and logistics, construction, manufacturing, financial services, and healthcare. At any given time, workers trained at the MET Center may be employed at 300 or 400 companies in the metro area, says Carolyn Seward, chief executive of Family and Workforce Centers of America, which operates the center. Examples include pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and herbal research company KWS.

“These employers work with us to ensure our program is always relevant; they offer internships and ultimately jobs,” says Seward.

Last year, 465 people completed the MET Center’s training programs, virtually or in person, and the center matched 1,402 people with jobs at an average wage of $17.32 an hour, Seward says. The MET Center has helped thousands more through education and skills assessments that determine eligibility for its training programs and help people decide what types of jobs might be best suited.

In June, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a budget that includes $4 million to help the center expand its operations. County Executive Sam Page and County Council Chair Rita Heard Days both said they hoped to match the amount as part of negotiations among council members over how to spend $74 million. county ARPA dollars. These negotiations are ongoing.

By using ARPA money to make physical improvements to the MET Center’s facilities and expand its training programs, the center could nearly double the number of clients in its training programs, Seward says.

The center also offers soft skills counseling and coaching services to prepare people for the world of work.

“We were one of the first to start integrating mental health, financial education, housing issues, [and] issues with legal services in workforce development programs,” notes Seward.

The shortage of workers in industries like diesel mechanics underscores the headwinds facing older cities like St. Louis, which has an aging workforce in mechanical jobs. At the same time, it underscores the opportunities presented by the region’s status as a major logistics hub linking trucking to rail and river transportation, said Phyllis Ellison, Associate Vice Chancellor of the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College.

“Diesel is everything about trucking, and trucking is all of our delivery and supply chain challenges that we face,” says Ellison, adding that when companies struggle to get new trucks, repair existing trucks becomes even more vital.

And it’s not just the mechanics. The trucking industry also needs a lot more people who can drive rigs. The 2021 edition of the STLCC State of St. Louis Workforce Report noted that there were more than 10,000 job postings online last year looking for heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers. For jobs that require an average level of education or professional training (less than a four-year college degree), it was second only to ads looking for registered nurses, which totaled more than 21,000. ( The 2022 report is due out at the end of August.)

Growing demand for workers and ongoing restrictions caused by the pandemic mean some of STLCC’s job training programs have waiting lists, Ellison says. These include entry-level healthcare programs and vocational training for manufacturing and industrial jobs.

A separate labor market analysis in March, non-profit BioSTL noted that 47% of current job openings in St. Louis’ bioscience industry (which employs more than 19,000 people) are for mid-skill jobs, mostly in manufacturing and sale.

Ellison points out that 34% of the region’s workforce has a high school diploma or less, with no additional training. “For me, that’s where we have a huge opportunity to improve,” she says.

At the same time, a big challenge will be how to structure these training programs, offering stipends to participants, for example, so that those who need the training the most can benefit. Many workers cannot afford to leave a regular salary to take a two-month skills course, even if it could eventually lead to a better paying job.

Said Ellison: “If your choice is between putting food on the table and going to practice, your choice will be putting food on the table.”

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