St. Joseph has a problem. At least 250 high school graduates a year leave high school without a plan to further their education. They take low-paying, low skill jobs and often remain in them for a long period of time.

“We need to bridge the gap between the high school diploma and a two-year degree,” said Bruce Woody, St. Joseph City Manager at a meeting between business leaders and Rich Payne, director of the Cape Girardeau Career & Technology Center.

On June 1, Payne spent the day talking with business leaders and educators from the St. Joseph School District and higher education institutions about his experience in developing Cape College Center, a place where various institutions work together to educate the workforce.

Representatives from Gray Manufacturing Co. Inc., Hillyard Companies, Herzog Contracting Corp., Mosaic Life Care and others told Payne about the types of programming needed to fill jobs at their companies including advanced manufacturing, maintenance, medical coding, welding, machining and more. They discussed the need for Hillyard Technical Center, Missouri Western State University, Metropolitan Community College and the St. Joseph School District to work together to meet the needs of the students and employers.

“You as business people have to be the driver,” Payne said. “Educators listen to the business community if they’re smart.”

The focus needs to move away from educational institution territory and toward the good of the student and the economy. This can be done by developing programming and encouraging high school graduates to get certifications and education in a two-year environment.

“Instead of arguing about the slice of the pie, let’s increase the size of the pie,” Woody said.

If more residents are getting a technical education and making more money than low-skill, low pay jobs offer, that will affect the poverty rate, R. Patt Lilly, President and CEO of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce said.

“What they did in Cape Girardeau, we can do here,” Lilly said. “This is a model that can work in St. Joseph.”

Al Landes, President and COO of Herzog Contracting Corp., said that someone along the way demonized careers in skilled manufacturing. High school students often don’t even consider it as a career choice, even though these jobs often pay much more starting out than what four-year college graduates can make after graduation.

“Establishing a program like this is a win-win,” Landes said. “There are no losers in this.”

Payne said that a main message that parents need to know is that technical education and two-year degrees are a quicker return on investment.

“All you want for your children is a better life,” Payne said.

Workforce development has been a Chamber priority for the last few years, after Lilly returned to the Chamber of Commerce from a job in the private sector, but it’s been an issue that has been needing addressed for a while.

“This has been an issue for some time that has been shoved to the side,” said Stet Schanze, President of Gray Manufacturing Co. Inc. “This hasn’t just come up because of the tight labor market in the last four or five years. But it has become very critical now because it’s affecting the health and vitality of our businesses.”