Sometimes, finding a good candidate may mean rethinking your approach.

The struggle is real for employers trying to find qualified candidates in today’s job market. With Cole County’s unemployment rate at 2.6%, the task of hiring the right person can feel nearly impossible, and with four generations of employees now in the workforce, the challenges in recruiting and retaining are unlike any seen before. Still, creative solutions can lead to exciting opportunities.

A recurring theme among employers is the need for candidates that possess basic “life skills” or “soft skills” like making eye contact, dressing appropriately, or showing up on time. This seems to be especially true in the service industry, which relies partly on the use of teenagers to fill part-time positions. 

Many teens who participate in other extra-curricular activities, like sports, elect to not take on part-time jobs like those in the service industry, instead opting for jobs that are more conducive to their schedules, thus making the pool of candidates even smaller. 

Monica Higgins taught for over 29 years in both Jefferson City Public Schools and parochial schools, and she’s the parent of a former high school athlete. She says most sports commitments today are no longer just for one season but can encompass the entire year with weight conditioning and practices, with the burden falling even heavier if a child participates in multiple sports.

Donna English, a Papa Murphy’s Pizza franchise owner, has addressed the matter by hiring more people who work fewer hours. 

“We work with their schedules, and that may mean they only work 10 hours per week,” English says. 

English also utilizes techniques that are geared toward high schoolers to help with recruitment and retention. That includes good grades bonuses, employee referrals, an online application process, and being able to close at 8 p.m. While some have challenges making change or figuring discounts, English explains that the students often serve as reverse mentors. 

“We spend some time with them on how to make change or figure a discount manually and they get it very quickly. However, when it comes to any technology, such as networking or using Grubhub, the employees are helping me,” English says.

The service industry isn’t the only one to feel the pressure of the current market. Lt. Dave Williams and Lt. Jeff Steifermann of the Jefferson City Police Department share that they are experiencing a significant decline in the number of applicants who sit for testing to become a communications officer or police officer. The JCPD is being proactive in its approach to increase its numbers. 

“We had to change the way we were doing things, and what had worked before would not work now,” Williams says. 

A current strategy they’re employing is using their own employees as recruiters. Employees are given printed cards with all the pertinent information about an open position on it and are encouraged to give them out to prospective applicants. Another strategy is using their school resource officers to identify students who are not interested in going to college but looking for another path to a professional, rewarding career. The JCPD also examined how they use their technology in their daily work and are learning ways to incorporate technology that appeals to younger people entering the workforce. 

Paula Benne, president and owner of C&S Business Services, places employees with employers on a daily basis in Jefferson City. She sees these and other workforce challenges in all industries with applicants from all walks of life.

“Companies that could take on more work or expand are not doing so because of the lack of qualified candidates,” says Benne.

To combat some of these issues, groups throughout Jefferson City are focusing on training. 

One strategy that Benne uses is engaging with the Missouri Department of Corrections Career & Technical Training program through the Division of Offender Rehabilitative Services. The program offers apprenticeships and vocational training in many areas, including heavy equipment operation, wastewater management, welding, truck driving, and building trades. The use of simulators gives the participants hands-on experience. 

To help prepare young people to enter the local workforce, both Helias Catholic and JCPS have partnered with Nichols Career Center. At Nichols, high school students can get a career technical education, or CTE, that includes hands-on experience as well as internships and apprenticeships, and these courses help fill the gap between high school and real-world experience.

The offerings don’t end at Nichols. All of our area high schools have elective classes geared toward helping students prepare for the workforce. One example is Helias’ “Life Skills for the 21st Century” class, which covers everything from communication skills to car maintenance. JCPS offers classes like job readiness, personal finance, and independent living in an effort to prepare their students for the real world.

Higgins says that built-in programs to teach work skills in school are invaluable. “Schools are more in tune with the need for life skills, and they know that students are choosing different paths like attending a trade school,” she says. 

So is that the key? Perhaps. 

“I’ve been in business for over 32 years, and the culture has changed a lot, but accountability and reliability are still two of the most important skills,” Benne says.

Michelle Varcho
Michelle Varcho

Michelle Varcho is the director of education outreach for 3RNet, a graduate of Columbia College, and holder of a human resources certification since 2003. She has lived and worked in Jefferson City since 1999 with her husband, Nick, and her two sons, Eric and James.