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For the past couple of years, industrial growth in the form of new distribution and fulfillment centers has brought billions in investments and the promise of hundreds of jobs and workforce development to the Kansas City region.
If Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has his way, 2023 will be another year that Missouri prioritizes new industry and job growth, as the state seeks to leverage its central location to attract businesses.
“This year, we celebrated business announcements all across the state of Missouri,” Parson said during his State of the State address. “In total, more than $2.9 billion dollars and nearly 5,000 new jobs were created by businesses that utilized our state programs. We are proud that Missouri ranks first in the United States for our low cost of doing business.”
The news is welcome to those in Kansas City’s business community who have said for decades that available real estate, access to highways and business-friendly tax rates should make the region desirable for prospective businesses.
But those business boosters also say that workforce development is about more than just attracting industrial business. Access to housing, child care and reliable transportation also need to be a part of the equation to take advantage of new job opportunities.
Parson noted that unemployment fell to 2.4%, the lowest rate ever recorded. With assistance from pandemic relief funds under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Missouri has promoted economic development with measures such as broadband expansion, infrastructure investments and work training programs.
Since the start of 2022, the state’s Department of Economic Development has announced at least $350 billion in business investment in the Kansas City region, with much of the growth coming in distribution and industrial jobs.
In mid-January, URBN, the parent company of brands like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, announced that it would build a new fulfillment center in Raymore, creating up to 750 jobs in its approximately 600,000-square-foot facility. Also last month, West Liberty Foods announced it would open a food processing center in southwest Kansas City that is expected to employ 583 people.
“If you look at what’s happened in Raymore, what’s happening with Liberty [Foods] and the cold storage plant that was just announced … they look at the location and they anticipate that the workforce will be available,” said Clyde McQueen, president of the Full Employment Council of Kansas City.
“We just have to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place that enables all of our population who are available to work to do that,” McQueen added.
“It’s not just a one-legged stool, it’s a three-legged stool that sits on the heels of the education system and workforce development.”
Investment in child care a top priority for lawmakers in 2023
One essential component of getting people into jobs is quality care for their children. Both Missouri’s governor and legislature say they are emphasizing child care development across the state in 2023.
In Missouri, 54% of residents live in a child care desert, meaning options in their census tract are nonexistent or severely limited, according to the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.
In Missouri, 58% of Latino families and 55% of low-income families live in areas without enough licensed child care providers, according to the research.
In his address in the early weeks of the legislative session, Parson highlighted the $1 billion the state has already invested in expanding child care and early education programs across the state. He vowed to increase investment and incentive to the industry in the state’s upcoming budget.
“We know child care remains a struggle for many parents and businesses,” Parson said. “Child care providers often have to limit their hours due to staffing shortages or increase their prices … this poses a real challenge to parents as they weigh the decision to work or stay home.”
McQueen pointed to the changing structure of the American household, which has moved away from reliance on the nuclear family and now assumes many forms.
“In our region, we have about 90,000 families that have kids under the age of 18. About 51,000 of those families are single parents, 39,000 are led by women, another 12,000 of them led by men,” he said.
He added: “It can be a roadblock to try and ensure that you can pay for child care fees in the beginning. A lot of people don’t have those resources available to them.”
Affordable housing, reliable transportation needed to ensure workers have access to jobs
Access to affordable housing and reliable transportation are essential to sustainably building a workforce in the Kansas City area, McQueen said.
On the November ballot, Kansas City residents voted to funnel $50 million toward affordable housing initiatives in the city.
And in December, the state awarded $40 million in federal and state tax credits to build new affordable housing units around the state.
The Missouri Housing Development Commission approved 33 new projects across the state this year, including six in the Kansas City region. Four of the new developments are family units; three are in Kansas City, and one is in Raymore. Developers must reserve some of the units for low-income families, and the units will remain part of the program for at least 30 years.
McQueen praised those initiatives to promote what he called workforce housing. But he said that if access to reliable transportation isn’t a part of the picture, it can be more difficult to support the industries moving into new parts of the city and metro area.
He pointed to a community partner in a rural area who volunteered to transport people to doctor appointments. About half the time, McQueen said, people were using the offer for assistance to get to and from work.
Similar efforts may be necessary when it comes to the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, an example of workforce development and investment in the region with limited transportation options to support getting to and from the airport.
“We have to make sure that the workers can get to and from the airport, whatever options there are,” McQueen said. “But that should be led by public policy.”
He added: “What we have consistently seen is how that ecosystem of those three pillars — housing, transportation and child care — supports the training. And if that’s available to them consistently, they will complete the training courses, they will step on the jobs, they will stay with the companies and they become good candidates for other companies.”