Joplin unemployment fell in June, reaching its lowest level in decades, meaning it doesn’t take much to get a job these days, according to one economist.

“If they can show up to work on time, sober, not steal from the company, stay off their phone, they’ll always have a job,” said David Mitchell, a professor of economics at Missouri State University in Springfield.

For the first time since at least 1990, according to the Missouri Economic and Research Information Center, the unemployment level in the Joplin Metropolitan Area (Jasper and Newton counties) has dipped below 3 percent. When adjusted for seasonal trends, unemployment in June fell to 2.7 percent.

Unemployment in the area has steadily pushed downward since hitting a high of 8.8 percent in 2010, during the recession.

While some area employers are beginning to feel the pinch of a tightened labor market and have had to take steps to bolster recruitment efforts, workers may not see a corresponding climb in wages based on their job skills, and some of the area’s largest employers say they are still able to fill their openings without much difficulty.

While there may be plenty of jobs available in the Joplin area, the quality of those jobs seems to be an issue. One online job-search website on Thursday showed 2,915 full-time jobs posted within a 50-mile radius of Joplin; more than 2,400 were classified as entry-level.

According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, personal incomes throughout Missouri were among the slowest-growing in the country from 2015 to 2016, even as unemployment came down.

Incomes throughout the state grew by just 0.6 percent, compared to the national average of 1.1 percent.

That information tracks with data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that wages in the area lag behind the national average, even though Joplin usually has lower unemployment According to the agency, the average hourly wage in the Joplin metropolitan area was $17.94 in May 2016, compared with $23.86 nationwide — 25 percent below the national average.

“Wages in the (Joplin) area were significantly lower than their respective national averages in 20 of the 22 major occupational groups, including management, legal, and computer and mathematical,” the report concluded.

‘LOW-VALUE GOODS’

Low unemployment may not translate into a bump in wages in part because of the value of goods and services provided in the region, Mitchell said. For example, an economy driven by workers who produce poultry is likely to generate lower wages than one whose workers specialize in information technology or high-tech manufacturing.

“It’s a reflection of what you’re making,” he said. “We don’t make automobiles down here. There’s not a huge IT sector in Southwest Missouri ... We don’t have lots of chemical processing, we don’t have pharmaceuticals and all these other things that are high-end products and make real high-valued goods and services. We make relatively low-value goods and services.”

The unemployment level slipping to its current low may result in some employers raising wages slightly if they’re competing for the same talent, but Mitchell said a worker shortage alone is unlikely to drive up wages significantly.

According to the Southwest Missouri Workforce Investment Board, a workforce training and economic development nonprofit, nearly a quarter of all jobs in Southwest Missouri pay $25,000 per year or less. Southwest Missouri is defined as the seven-county region: Barry, Barton, Dade, Jasper Lawrence, McDonald and Newton.

“Factors to consider include the region’s relatively low cost of living as compared to the nation,” said Frank Neely, head of research and logistics for WIB. “Economists also cite other reasons for slow wage growth, including improvements in technology and automation, low unionization rates, low productivity and others. Another thing to consider is the large number of people who have re-entered the workforce after long periods of inactivity — these individuals typically take longer to train and are often unable to command higher wages.”

SKILLS GAP?

Even with low unemployment, Neely said an issue that exacerbates the problems local employers have in filling jobs is a disconnect between the workforce’s abilities and what companies need.

“The abundance of job openings in the area is largely the result of a significant skills gap between the available labor pool — namely, students and inexperienced adult job-seekers — and what employers are looking for,” he said.

In an attempt to address that problem, Neely said, the WIB conducts various training and apprenticeship programs for area job-seekers.

Stephen Shields, the owner of Express Employment Professionals franchises in Joplin, Neosho and Pittsburg, Kansas, said he has never seen a market with so few job-seekers. He said it’s “very, very obvious” to him that local companies are having trouble finding people to fill certain jobs. Part of the reason for that, he said, is the skills gap. But because of a tight labor market, some companies are choosing to provide training for new hires instead of holding out for a more qualified candidate.

“We are seeing even some manufacturing companies in some parts of the county where they are altering work schedules, again just one of many things that might be done,” Shields said. “And then on the skills gap piece, you know, are companies willing to, if they hire you and you have eight or seven of the 10 skills they need, are they willing to train you up on the other skills? Or are those skills so critical that they have to move on and look for a new candidate?”

In some cases though, Shields said, employers do need to examine their pay and consider offering more in order to attract candidates.

“While we are in a low-cost place, and I’m thankful for that, we as employers always have to be looking at pay rates for the work requested; what are we providing?” he said. “I think we all have to do some self-reflection and say ,‘Am I in a good spot?’ and not say, ‘That’s what we’ve done for 10 years.’”

EMPLOYER PERSPECTIVE

One local company that is able to fill openings is Joplin-based TAMKO Building Products, with a workforce of 800 people in the area.

Its president and CEO David Humphreys said that not only does the company not have trouble filling job openings, it rarely has jobs come open at all.

The lowest-paid TAMKO employee, Humphreys said, will make $17 per hour as starting pay. That wage is close to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average rate for all workers in the entire metropolitan area. TAMKO’s production employees can make more than $65,000 per year, Humphreys said.

“We have really no trouble attracting and retaining really good people, sometimes with college degrees, to work in a production environment,” he said. “Certainly, if you pay them well and treat them well, you get great people.

“We’re paying at the top — we may be the very top-paying employer in the area, and that’s on purpose,” Humphreys added. “We want to attract really good people and retain them and we’re able to do that. There’s really no such thing as a shortage of labor, just a price point at which labor’s available. You pay really well, you get great people.”

It can be a challenge to find workers with computer programming skills, Humphreys said, but the company has an additional information technology operation in Dallas that helps it meet its need.

When ZAF Energy Systems opened in Joplin and began hiring last year, the company received as many as 250 applications, and roughly half of those were adequately trained and qualified, said Tom Shireman, vice president of manufacturing. ZAF, a battery manufacturer, makes a different type of battery than longtime Joplin employer EaglePicher Technologies, but Shireman said he suspected the presence in the area of at least some people with experience in the field contributed to their relative ease of hiring.

“My feeling is that there’s a lot of skilled labor in the area that is unafraid to change jobs,” Shireman said. “That’s looking maybe to do something new, we’ve had several people where they’ve been at companies for 10 or 12 year and just wanted to do something different.”

Freeman Health System, one of the largest employers in the region, with a workforce of 5,000, said it also has yet to feel the effects of record low unemployment. Still, the health care system announced earlier this month its plans to establish a day-care and preschool for the children of employees and was clear about its hopes that the Freeman Learning Center will become a recruiting and retention tool.

“I would’ve loved to have had it a couple of years ago whenever I first started here because my little boy was about that age,” said Shannon Bruffett, media relations coordinator for Freeman. “That would be something, being a mom of a young kid, knowing that he would be a in a safe place and a caring place and still getting an education, that’s huge.”

‘SPECIFIC SKILLSET’

Another of the area’s larger employers, CFI, hasn’t had much difficulty filling the average job opening, said Alan Brady, human resources director. He cited the company’s emphasis on employee retention by providing competitive compensation and benefits, as well as a positive overall culture.

CFI is one of the largest trucking companies in the United States, with more than 3,000 employees, most of who are company drivers that live all over the country. About 600 of those employees work in Joplin at its headquarters on 32nd Street or are drivers based in the area.

The company has also recently announced a raise in drivers’ per-mile pay as a nationwide trucker shortage continues to take its toll on transportation companies. Nationally, the unemployment rate fell from 4.0 percent in June to 3.9 percent in July. A 2017 study by the American Trucking Association concluded the United States is 50,000 truck drivers short of the number it needs now and projects that the shortage could balloon to more than 174,000 over the next eight years.

Brady said: “A good chunk of the people that are interested in working at CFI come through referrals and a lot of those folks work for us that are referred by their friend, their family, people that they know. So a good measure as a company is to keep your current staff happy because they’ll be the best ambassadors for your company and getting the word out that you’re a good, stand-up employer.”

Brady did echo some of the experiences of other employers in the region about the difficulty of finding job candidates with certain skills or technical qualifications.

“Your skilled workers are some of the harder ones to find,” he said. “It seems like all the employers are looking for those folks with a specific skillset and whether that’s programming or finance or maintenance, the solution there is to definitely reach out to the area schools, colleges and partner with them and grow that relationship.”

Unemployment, wage stats

• 2.7 percent: Seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the Joplin metropolitan area, according to Missouri Department of Economic Development.

• 3 percent: Previous lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the past 28 years.

• $17.94 per hour: Average hourly wage, Joplin metro area as of May 2016, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• 0.6 percent: Wage growth in Missouri from 2015 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

• 1.1 percent: Wage growth nationwide from 2015 to 2016, per BEA.