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With new program, Missouri State University wants to bolster workforce with graduate students

Downtown Springfield, Missouri, photographed Aug. 9, 2022.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
Downtown Springfield, Missouri, photographed Aug. 9, 2022.

Missouri State University hopes to strengthen the bonds between employers in the Ozarks and highly educated, up-and-coming workers.

This week, Missouri State hosted a lunch event at the eFactory in downtown Springfield. They weren’t celebrating the holidays. Officials rolled out a new effort to get high-skilled workers out into the local labor force. It’s simply dubbed the Community Graduate Assistant Program.

“Practical experience," Dr. Julie Masterson says, by way of characterizing the new effort. "It’s like an internship on steroids.”

Dr. Masterson is a speech pathologist. She’s also dean of the Missouri State graduate college and an associate provost. She says that in pilot form, a handful of students and a variety of local employers have already taken advantage of MSU’s new grad assistant program.

“This advanced workforce development need — that will vary," Masterson says. "Depending on whether the employer is a large corporation, a small private firm, or even a nonprofit.”

More about the workforce development side of all this comes later in this article. But first, let’s explain how Missouri State’s new program works.

Grad students are matched with a local employer on a contract basis. The local employer helps write the job description for a 20-hour-per-week role. The students get paid monthly and have their tuition and fees covered. And, Dr. Masterson says, these assistantships often run for both fall and spring semesters.

That's important because the timeframe is significantly longer than a typical beginners’ work internship. Those often finish up in about 10 weeks. MSU’s longer timeframe lets the students blossom beyond mere basic training. The idea is that employers get to leverage the skills offered by eager new workers.

“She’s hungry for knowledge; she’s excited to learn.”

That's how Tyler Hellweg describes a graduate student his company took on. Hellweg has a niche architecture firm in Springfield, Arkifex. His company was looking to ramp up its marketing, but wasn’t ready to commit to creating a new department in-house or hiring a full-service firm from outside. So Arkifex went with a grad student skilled in marketing.

"What normally felt like it would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars for us to create, it was $20,000 for us to really see if it’s a right fit for our business," Hellweg says.

Employers like Hellweg pay roughly $21,000 to $23,000 for a full academic year of student placement. The students get to jump into a real-world professional job — but they remain a paid employee of the university. That’s an advantage for the employers as they manage costs.

Could Springfield host a 'center for advanced workforce development'?

The hope is to also provide an advantage for the entire community: Promoting Missouri State, the Ozarks and Springfield as places with vibrant economic and educational opportunities. I asked Dr. Masterson what she thought the program could bring in 5 to 10 years.

She says, “I would love to see us be able to develop somewhat of a center for advanced workforce development, so that we would continually engage with our community to make sure that all of our coursework, academic experiences, that we’re providing for our students are indeed resulting in an advanced potential employee for them.”

If things go really well, Missouri State’s new effort could even become a statewide placement program, Dr. Masterson says. And that leads us to some important context with today’s workforce in Missouri.

Almost three full years after 2020, Missouri’s workforce remains in short supply. A couple of numbers published a few months ago by the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. help illustrate the issue.

Pre-COVID, Missouri had about 85 workers for every 100 open jobs. Lately, the U.S. Chamber considers Missouri’s labor market to be "nearly fully recovered.” But these days, there are just 53 available workers for every 100 open job positions in the Show-Me State.

It’s important to note that those numbers cover the whole workforce, not just the highly-educated segment made up by people pursuing advanced degrees. But Dr. Masterson argues that bolstering this advanced workforce will help the Ozarks.

“Folks with graduate degrees tend to engage more in volunteer activities. They tend to be involved in philanthropy — giving, financially — more. And of course they contribute to the professional activities of the community.”

To learn more about the new program, visit or call 417-836-8740.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.