On the fifth anniversary of the death of Ferguson resident Michael Brown, we at the St. Louis Regional Chamber want to take a moment to reflect on what the word “Ferguson” has meant to the St. Louis region. It is a reminder that the St. Louis region has a long history of racial, economic and social disparities that continue to hold us back today. We as a community have made notable strides in addressing these issues, but we still have much work to do.

We want to recognize the leadership of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Ameren, Centene, BJC Healthcare, St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and others who worked with the Ferguson, Dellwood and North County communities to bring jobs, support business recovery and invest in successful community programs to improve employment, health and education outcomes. Forward Through Ferguson’s 2018 State of the Report determined we now need to move beyond the program level to collaborate at the state and local levels to bring about lasting policy and systems change called for by the Ferguson Commission and the community. Five years later, we have an important opportunity to do just that.

Over the last five years, the Regional Chamber has worked with over 100 area educational institutions, employers and community organizations to address education and workforce gaps. We continually talk with our members about how in our tight labor market, workforce is a major challenge; however, as identified in St. Louis Community College State of the Workforce report, justice-involved citizens, people with disabilities, and African-American men ages 18-24 are still underrepresented and do not reap the benefits of our regional economic strength.

This moment should push businesses to examine hiring practices that limit the candidate pool and possibly result in racial disparities, including limiting professional development opportunities, mandatory drug testing, felony exclusions, and degree requirements. Workforce demand encourages employers to look at innovative transportation and training solutions and to invest in education. It forces us to look at ways to be more inclusive, knock down barriers to employment and invest in results-driven training programs. Workforce development is a challenge, but it can also be used as an opportunity.

Access to a good-paying job or business capacity will not totally fix our region’s racial disparities but it is an area in which the Regional Chamber and the business community can directly affect. We are encouraged by recent collaborative initiatives like STLWorksSave Our Sons, the Diverse Business Accelerator and Project 250. We as a business community can take advantage of these immediate workforce demands to collaborate to address long-standing systemic barriers to education, employment, and minority business capacity. Five years later, today is an opportunity we cannot afford to lose.