Working It Out: Inside Springfield’s Workforce

On the surface, Springfield’s workforce looks healthy. Unemployment and cost of living is low, and sectors including education, health services and utilities make up a bulk of the labor market. But dive deeper and you’ll find the issue is more complex.

By Ettie Berneking | Photography By Chuck Travers

Oct 2015

It’s 5 a.m. and already John Kuranda and his three sons, 5-year-old Aiden, 8-year-old Mathew, and 9-year-old Joshua, have started their day. When the alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m., there’s no dilly dallying. Everyone has to be out the door by 5, so Kuranda can be at work by 6, which means the whole gang piles into the shower in order to be bathed and ready to go in about 15 minutes. Once the boys are dropped off with their granddad, Kuranda heads to Cox Medical Center South’s new patient tower where he works as a registered nurse.

Three years ago, Kuranda was struggling to keep the utilities turned on. Now he has an associate’s degree in nursing and a good-paying job. He is one of the lucky ones who was able to move his family out of poverty.


The Numbers Don’t Match

On the surface, Springfield looks great. The cost of living is 6.5 percent lower than the national average, the city’s workforce has grown 8.5 percent over the last four years, Springfield ranked in the top five in the nation for economic growth; and the unemployment rate sits at 5.2 percent compared to the state average of 5.7 percent. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. For that, you have to look at two more statistics: the city’s poverty rate and the median household income. 

Of the two, Springfield’s poverty rate might be the most surprising. Some 25 percent of people living in Springfield fall below the poverty level. That’s 10 percent more than the state average, which is 15.5 percent. With a relatively low unemployment rate, you would expect Springfield’s poverty rate to also fall below the state average. So what’s the problem? Why is poverty continuing to rise?

To answer that question, you have to look at Springfield’s median household income, which is $32,000. The state average is $47,380, and the national average is $67,000. That puts us on par with Detroit, whose median household income falls at $30,000. In fact, Springfield ranks in the bottom five nationally in pay, and it’s not just the city’s workforce that is sounding the alarm. HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) designated Springfield a community in severe fiscal distress. “We’re the only city in the state with that designation,” says Brendan Griesemer, planning and development manager for Springfield. “That means we are the only city in the state that has both low per-capita income and a high percentage of families in poverty.”

For some, HUD’s designation was a serious blow to Springfield’s rosy reputation, but not everyone was surprised. “Springfield is notorious for paying low wages,” says Mark Struckhoff, executive director of Council of Churches. Through the Council’s numerous community outreach programs, including Crosslines food pantry, and his involvement on the Impacting Poverty Commission, Struckhoff has seen the increase in poverty firsthand.

“In some ways this whole concern about poverty should not be coming as a surprise,” he says. “It’s almost the news that has finally come home to roost.”


Small Victories

Back at the hospital, Kuranda’s most common visitors are his boys. He showed them around the new rooms right after the tower was complete. At first, Kuranda didn’t think his oldest, Joshua, was interested in the tour, but when he picked the boys up from the babysitter, he was told Joshua couldn’t stop talking about what he had seen at the hospital. Months later, that still makes Kuranda smile. 

“When you’re 18, 19, 20, you look to your family when you need help. I saw friends who were able to turn to their families, but I wasn’t. I want to be able to help my kids when they need it.” —John Kuranda

Growing up, Kuranda’s family regularly dipped into welfare, and money was a constant worry, so when he became a father himself, he wanted things to be different. “When you’re 18, 19, 20, you look to your family when you need help,” he says. “I saw friends who were able to turn to their families, but I wasn’t. I want to be able to help my kids when they need it.”

Before becoming an RN, Kuranda had a good-paying job in underground utilities. But in 2009, the market was reeling from the recession, and Kuranda was laid off. A year later he got divorced and got primary custody of the boys. “I had to pass up a lot of jobs because I couldn’t leave them with a babysitter for 65 hours a week,” he says. “It would have been very expensive and I couldn’t have them go from seeing both parents every day to barely seeing me at all.” Instead of taking part-time work, Kuranda decided to go back to school and enrolled in OTC in 2011 to become a licensed practical nurse. His student loans covered a bulk of the family’s expenses, but they didn’t cover everything. 

The family received another $40 a month from OACAC (Ozark Area Community Action Corporation), $342 a month from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and $5 a week for gas money from the Ozark Region Missouri Career Center. When money was really tight and Kuranda couldn’t pay the utility bill, OACAC helped turn the electricity back on. “I tried to keep the details away from the boys,” Kuranda says. “But I knew in the background how bad things were.” 

At night, he and his three boys crowded around the table and did homework. When Mathew woke up one morning vomiting blood from a complication with a tonsillectomy, Kuranda spent most of the day in the emergency room and almost missed a test. “They gave me 10 percent off my grade just for being late,” he says. “I know they want to get you ready for the real world, but an employer would have understood.”

By the time Kuranda finished his associate’s degree, he had taken out $40,000 in student loans, but despite the looming debt, the graduation was still reason to celebrate. Kuranda, who was the first to graduate in his family, hauled all three of the boys up on stage with him. “It was really neat that they could see all that hard work pay off,” he says. But Kuranda and the boys couldn’t have crossed that stage alone. Organizations including the Career Center and OACAC were there when Kuranda needed a helping hand. The career center even gave the boys birthday packages with paper plates and everything the family would need for a birthday cake at home. “I couldn’t have done this without them,” Kuranda says.

After losing a good-paying job in underground utilities John Kuranda went back to school. He now works as an RN with CoxHealth. When he graduated from OTC, he brought his three sons, Mathew, Aiden and Joshua, up on stage with him. 

Beefing Up Soft Skills

Located on East Sunshine Street, the career center is a hub for those looking to re-enter the workforce. It hosts job fairs, helps with resume writing and offers job training and GED classes. Programs including WIC, Center for Workforce Development and Family Services are housed in the building. When the center hosted a job fair in July, a line of people snaked its way around the building as they waited to meet with representatives from Mercy Hospital, CoxHealth, Bass Pro Shops, 3M and other major Springfield employers.

“It’s amazing how many we get who have education and a college degree but for some reason are living in poverty,” says Mary Ann Rojas, the director of Workforce Development.

For those who don’t have a college degree or who have been out of work for some time, a big issue they face is a lack of soft skills: being able to communicate well with others and work on a team, knowing how to shake an employer’s hand and how to communicate self-confidence. To help build those skills, the career center’s Missouri Work Assistance Program (MWA) offers a two-week course called Thrival where participants work on resumes and learn how to dress for an interview and the importance of researching companies they’re applying to. 

On a recent Tuesday morning, eight women show up for the course. Most hope to go through the MWA’s Connect Program, which helps place people in temporary jobs where a portion of their wages are subsidized by the Career Center. The Mercy Career Path Program is just one of the job-placement options under the Connect Program, and it places people within Mercy’s environmental services, food services or medical supply divisions.

“These people might have gaps in their resumes and wouldn’t likely get a call back if they weren’t in our program,” says Jennifer Biri, business services representative at the Career Center. “This is a way for them to get a foot in the door.” Participants go through the two-week Thrival course, and submit an application to Mercy. Once accepted, they can stay within that department for three months with subsidized wages through the career center. 

Since early 2014, the program has placed 14 people at Mercy. Seven were hired with environmental services; five were hired into food service and two received full-time employment in the medical supply division. The program has been such a success that the Career Center is now working on partnering with CoxHealth and Ozarks Community Hospital. But getting the job is one thing, finding transportation to that job is another issue.

Springfield’s public transit system serves more than 1 million rides each year. To better serve its customers and hopefully make riding the bus more inviting, the transit station is moving west on Main Avenue.  

Tackling Transportation 

“Everything is intertwined,” says Jennifer Olson with OACAC. “Transportation and employment go hand in hand.”

One of the most common hurdles Olson and case managers at OACAC see is transportation—whether it’s a lack of a car or the inability to pay for repairs. When Kuranda’s headlights stopped working because of an electrical issue, he couldn’t afford the bill and had to limit his night driving. When Jennifer Campbell, an account manager at Ollis/Akers/Arney, was struggling to find work, it took her eight months to save up the $800 needed to fix her front windows that were duct taped shut. “It’s embarrassing, and it hurts driving up to your place of employment with duct tape on your windows,” she says. “But you have a job and have to get there.”

“People complain the bus isn’t on time or it doesn’t stop where they work. And the number of stops decreases at night, which means if you work the night shift somewhere, you’re going to do a lot of waiting.”— Jennifer Olson with OACAC

Those who don’t have transportation are reliant on the bus system, which brings its own set of issues. “People complain the bus isn’t on time or it doesn’t stop where they work,” Olson says. “And the number of stops decreases at night, which means if you work the night shift somewhere, you’re going to do a lot of waiting.”

These are concerns Kelly Turner, director of transit at City Utilities of Springfield, has heard before. “Most of our stops are hourly or every 30 minutes,” he says. “That’s something I would love for us to improve, but how do you do that and stay in budget?” Like most cities, Springfield’s public transit department works at a deficit. Because it can’t lobby for money, and voters rejected Amendment 7 last summer (which would have given the transit department additional funding), expanding services is on hold. In 2015, city utilities received just $30,000 in state funding. “Unless there’s additional funding, our hands are tied,” Turner says, but that doesn’t mean he has given up.

Springfield’s public transit serves some 1.5 million rides annually, and to grow revenue, Turner has to figure out how to increase the bus’s ridership. To start, the bus station is being moved from its downtown location to a few blocks west on Main Avenue north of College Street. The new station will be easier to navigate and, Turner hopes, more inviting to the public who might not have to use the bus. Also geared toward making the bus more user-friendly is a new website and an app (RouteShout) that helps riders navigate the routes and see where their bus is in real time. Turner knows this isn’t enough to silence all the lingering complaints about Springfield’s bus system. But it’s a start.


Jennifer Campbell and her son, ChristianWilliams celebrate Jennifer’s graduation from the Empowered for Life Program, which helps people living in poverty find a way out. 

Looking Ahead 

Moving the bus station, collaborating with large employers like Mercy and CoxHealth to place people in new jobs, training people in the art of soft skills and resume writing—it’s all a start in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The problem is there’s no magic bullet. No one solution will drastically reduce Springfield’s poverty rate while hiking up the median household income, but starting the debate about what even qualifies as a livable wage is a good place to start. When Jennifer Campbell, the single mom who had to drive around with her windows duct taped shut, was laid off from an office manager position, she spent two months desperately searching for a job that could support her family. The office manager positions she applied for often required a degree but still only paid $8 to $10 an hour. Then Campbell was placed at Ollis through Express Employment Professionals, and she was able to work her way up and get her insurance license. She now has money in a savings account for the first time ever. 

“We have the job of explaining to the community why they should care about this,” says City Manager Greg Burris. “We need to focus on providing a livable wage and aligning workforce needs with skill sets.”

This is where the career center and OACAC are helping out. Programs like Go Caps, which is run through the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and helps teachers make lesson plans more relevant to the job market, are joining in. When Campbell needed support, the SingleMomzRock group was there to help with emotional support and career guidance. The group even helped get Campbell enrolled in the Empowered For Life program—a 16-week course that helps people living in poverty find a way out. The course helps people lay out their own business plans. When Kuranda and his boys needed a shoulder to lean on, the Career Center was there giving them gas money, birthday supplies and incentives to stay the course.

For Campbell, all that support helped her land a great job, and Kuranda earned a degree in nursing. But stories like theirs aren’t common enough, which is why the search for a solution to Springfield’s growing poverty problem is far from over. To help spread the word, Springfield is hosting a summit on October 8 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Springfield Art Museum. The city plans to release multiple reports that show the overlap of poverty, transportation, food insecurity and other areas of concern and how these issues are no longer isolated north of Chestnut Expressway. 

“This is our community,” Struckhoff says. “This is everyone’s issue. No longer can you say the hole is in your end of the boat. We are all in the same boat.”