Skill savvy

Local businesses expand expertise while still keeping ‘old fashioned’ work prosperous
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor says are coming to a halt remain in full throttle in Columbia, according to local business members.

Each year, the Department of Labor receives questionnaires from 400,000 businesses, conducts between 500 and 1,000 interviews with professional trade representatives and discusses factors that will influence employment change and availability over the next few years. Then economists use that data to project what the economy will look like in certain areas for the next 10 years, said Jon Sargent, the manager of occupational outlook studies at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Monthly Labor Review released by the department listed barbers, tellers and insurance claims clerks as being among several jobs in rapid decline.

But the reasons behind the declining jobs varied. Fewer educational opportunities available to people seeking a barber’s license and technological advances replacing the need for bank tellers and insurance claims clerks were among the listed reasons.

In Columbia, however, workers in these fields are required to learn new skills to keep them informed and productive in the ever-changing markets, and they say these occupations are not in decline.

Although the nation overall has fewer educational programs for prospective barbers, Missouri has seen a recent increase. The state opened a sixth barber school in 2001 and continues to release new barbers into the field, said Darla Fox, executive director of the Missouri State Board of Barber Examiners.

Travis Nichols began working as a barber at Campus Barber & Styling Shop one year ago after graduating from barber school in Springfield. While in school, Nichols took classes that many of his older co-workers who went to school before him did not have to take. Instead of limiting the class work to traditional men’s cuts and shaves, today some barber schools prepare students for lifestyles where men can take part in traditionally female-focused activities, such as dying hair and giving facials, while also learning to cater to male customers.

“Now in the state of Missouri, you have to figure out how to do women’s and men’s hair,” Nichols said.

Students must also develop cosmetology skills. These include learning how to dye hair, give permanents and do chemical hair relaxing, Fox said.

Mike McCann has worked at Tiger Barber Shop for 15 years. He said the shop does not perform any of these practices, but that their absence hasn’t hurt his business. In fact, the barbers cut out shaving from their job tasks.

Trimming these cosmetology practices from their routines allows the barbers to cut more heads of hair, he said.

The absence of the services has not hurt Tiger’s steady flow of clientele, either. McCann said that the shop cuts hair for students, businessmen, doctors and lawyers — old and new.

“It’s holding pretty steady, really,” he said of the flow of customers.

Columbia’s bank tellers are not seeing a decline in customers, either. The review said new technology such as ATMs, direct deposits and online banking are causing the extinction of bank tellers because clients will stop going inside banks. Big cities such as Chicago have already replaced tellers with machines, said Keith Whitney, retail group manager of First National Bank & Trust Co. But he said it would be a long time before this type of change occurs in small towns.

“In Columbia, we’re dealing with baby boomers who still want to talk to somebody face to face,” he said.

But with the pleasure of seeing old faces has also come a hunt for new technology, said Mary Wilkerson, marketing manager for Boone County National Bank. The bank’s customers take advantage of electronic innovations like ATMs but still go inside the bank for transactions, Wilkerson said. In fact, she said it is common for lines to form inside the bank.

Tellers at First National Bank & Trust Co. attend an initial two-week training period and then six or seven training sessions each year to keep up with the frequent technology changes within their occupation. The sessions update and teach workers new regulations, customer service techniques, sales strategies and security procedures.

This is true for tellers at Boone County National Bank as well. Wilkerson said the bank now has a specialized training department and daily training sessions — for all employees, not just tellers.

“I think it’s true to say we’re hiring different kinds of people than we used to — you really have to have a high level of skills,” Wilkerson said.

The additional skills have not replaced tellers, only made their jobs more important, she said.

New federal laws such as the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed in 2001, also create more work for the employees. Now, many banks verify identities by asking people opening an account to show driver’s licenses or birth certificates and keep photocopies of the identification to prove they obtained the information, Whitney said. He said because of the law, First National Bank & Trust Co. will only cash checks for people they know or for customers with bank accounts at an affiliate bank. Affiliate customers must also provide an ink thumbprint on their checks, he said.

In a third industry that the Department of Labor said is rapidly declining, Columbia insurance claims clerks haven’t been slowed by new laws or rendered obsolete by technology advances. While the review said new technology and more efficient business practices are causing the job to decline, Steve Andersen, branch claims manager at the Columbia branch claims office, the claim service for Shelter Insurance, said these factors contribute to a higher approval rating from clients.

“The electronic community has almost created a more efficient way to operate,” Andersen said.

Because of instantaneous information and communication devices, the workers have more time and opportunity to keep up with constant industry changes such as new legislation, automakers and car parts. As a result, Andersen is able to provide a better service to his clients.

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