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story.lead_photo.caption Cole Guerrant, as a second-year welding student, works in April 2017 at the new Welding Technology Center at the State Technical College of Missouri in Linn. The facility's mission is to bring more skilled workers to manufacture goods within the state. Photo by Shelby Kardell / News Tribune.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The Missouri Department of Economic Development hopes to create a statewide workforce that can adapt quickly to a tech-driven economy, according to discussion at a Wednesday meeting.

The DED announced in May a workforce development task force aimed at studying how the state's workforce aligns with the needs of employers. Overall, DED Director Rob Dixon said, changes need to be made to the state's workforce because Missouri lags behind its neighbors.

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The DED held meetings over the past week in Kansas City, Cape Girardeau, Springfield and more. The department held its final meeting Wednesday in Columbia, soliciting feedback from business owners from across Mid-Missouri.

Of 14 Midwestern states, Missouri ranked No. 12 among growth in gross domestic product over the past five years, No. 11 in job growth and No. 12 among workforce productivity, Dixon said.

"There's no reason why Missouri should be falling behind Kansas of all places," Dixon said. "We've got to acknowledge these issues and address them."

Urbanization is a chief problem causing a shortage of workers in rural parts of the state. Even within Missouri, people are leaving rural towns and flocking to cities, DED Director of Workforce Development Mardy Leathers said. From 2010-17, counties with cities statewide saw a 3.2 percent increase in population, while counties without cities saw a 1.1 percent decrease in population, Leathers said.

During workdays, 73 percent of counties statewide see their populations decrease as residents commute to work.

"We're strongly connected," Leathers said. "A project in Columbia might be very beneficial for Russellville."

Business owners said Wednesday they want access to things like quality broadband and quality housing. Some said the state's low cost of living could also lead to low wages. Others said they want to make Mid-Missouri more hospitable to diverse populations of people.

A low unemployment rate also weighs on rural areas.

Missouri had an unemployment rate of just 3.6 percent in May. Business owners said this hurts them, as many have been unable to find enough quality workers.

Dixon knows the unemployment rate will increase again at some point. He said the task force wants to create more nimble state agencies that can respond to the needs of businesses during recessions and growth phases. The task force also wants to make it easier for the DED to work with other state agencies like the Missouri Department of Higher Education, which will play an instrumental role in educating workers for the state's economy in decades to come.

Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan said companies in technical fields like information technology and health care can't find enough workers to fill positions. The task force wants to figure out how to train workers in those fields and create more interest in other technical fields among young students.

Mulligan and Dixon said the task force wants to consider whether the old general education model is stale. Instead, the task force could recommend students focus on specific areas at young ages.

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Missouri's largest metro areas lie on borders with Kansas and Illinois. Dixon said the task force wants to explore whether partnerships with other states can be made to encourage projects on the borders. If successful, regional economic development strategies could be pursued within the state between several cities and counties.

"It's not this zero-sum game," Dixon said. "The business community could care less about lines on a map, so we've got to think about it from that perspective, too."

The workforce development task force expects to release a report with its findings sometime in September. Dixon said he hopes in 10-15 years recommendations made by the task force will make the state a better place to live.

"I think it's a place where every Missourian has an opportunity to earn a great living for themselves and their families," Dixon said. "Ultimately that's what this is all about.

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