Community efforts to attract and retain workers of the future.


COLUMBIA, Mo. – The availability of good jobs is critical for attracting new residents to a community, encouraging former residents to return and convincing current residents to stay. But jobs alone are not enough anymore. Creating a vibrant community with desirable amenities is increasingly essential to attracting jobs and workers who can fill them, says Rob Russell, director of University of Missouri Extension’s labor and workforce development program.

“The world has changed, and there’s more competition for workers, particularly people with desirable skills,” Russell said. “It’s not enough for a community to just provide jobs. We also have to also create places and provide a quality of life that skilled workers desire if our communities want to have a workforce to help them prosper in the 21st century.”

Russell and MU Extension labor and workforce development program specialist Mark C. White discussed placemaking as part of broader community efforts to create attractive places for people to live and work at the Missouri Humanities Council Symposium on The Future of Work in April.

Placemaking is an approach to the design, management and development of public spaces and local amenities that helps leverage unique assets to promote vibrant communities, Russell explained.

Over the past decade, quality of life has become a top concern in corporate site selection. In a 2020 survey of corporate executives by Area Development magazine, 85% of respondents ranked quality of life as an important or very important factor in site location decisions, on par with more traditional concerns such as the availability of skilled labor and highway access. Many of today’s workers prioritize lifestyle in deciding where to pursue jobs and professional opportunities.

“For many communities, this means that marketing and investing in their quality-of-life amenities represents a key part of their economic and workforce development efforts,” White said. “Given that trend, communities have to work to make themselves a preferred destination. How do we build the kinds of communities people want to stay in or move to?”

A 2019 Walton Family Foundation report looked at 531 “micropolitan” areas in the United States — areas comprising one or more counties and having at least one city with a population between 10,000 and 50,000 — to identify factors that explain which are thriving or struggling to provide economic opportunity for residents.

Communities that ranked highest had travel, tourism and recreation as key industries, cultivated entrepreneurship, had research universities and/or four-year colleges and other quality of place amenities such as arts, cultural, recreational and lifestyle options. Branson was the only Missouri micropolitan area in the top quartile.

“We’re seeing increased competition not just for college-educated workers but for those in the skilled trades and with other specialized technical skills as well,” Russell said. “While Missouri doesn’t have an oceanfront or mountains to offer, we do have a number of other desirable amenities. But how do we build upon the amenities we do have to build our economies?”

Many communities focus on luring back “achievers” — high performers who left for specialized careers and opportunities. But research has shown that many communities would be better off ensuring that the people who stay and the people who are likely to return after experiencing bigger-city life have the skills to thrive in the 21st century economy.

Placemaking is often not grand and glorious projects, but rather it’s about quality schools and child care options, affordable housing, access to health care, low crime rates, good transportation and infrastructure, including access to broadband.

“Figure out who you are trying to appeal to and that will help influence the kind of placemaking you do,” Russell said. “Who are you trying to attract and what do you need to appeal to them?”

For example, a recent survey from Maximize NWMO, an economic development coalition in northwestern Missouri, showed factors that make a big difference in people’s decision to move back home. These include family ties, which was the No. 1 reason, as well as access to health care, broadband and education. All respondents also mentioned a sense of belonging to their community and the broader region.

Ultimately, placemaking is about building deep connections and creating a sense of purpose and belonging. COVID has made people value more space and access to nature, but not at the expense of infrastructure and amenities they now take as givens.

How can Missouri communities better attract and retain workers, given these trends and insights?

“It comes down to finding ways to make long-term investments in infrastructure, importantly broadband, as well as in downtown areas and other contributors to a small-town sense of place,” White said. “Recognize that today’s tourist could be tomorrow’s new resident. Be strategic about how to promote the region’s quality job opportunities. Support and provide civic and professional opportunities for stayers and returners. And most important, know that all these challenges require community efforts and long-term commitments and investment.”

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