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General Manager John Daniels said Case IH in Benson will be expanding its manufacturing operations with a 75,000-square-foot addition, and is now looking to hire roughly 50 new hourly workers as well as some salaried workers. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

Benson, Minn., company's challenge is finding workers

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BENSON -- What John Daniels calls his company's "challenge'' is one that many rural communities would consider a good one to have.

Case New Holland in Benson is preparing to expand its Case IH manufacturing facility and add roughly 50 hourly jobs and an unspecified number of salaried positions.

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The challenge is finding applicants for the positions, although recent news of the dilemma has started to bring job seekers to its door and website, according to Daniels, general manager.

Case IH is the largest employer in Swift County with 470 employees at its Benson facilities. The campus alongside U.S. Highway 12 on the east edge of Benson includes manufacturing, engineering and test facilities. It produces Case IH cotton pickers and packagers, as well as chemical and fertilizer applicators known as floaters, including the well-known Patriot model.

All of the products are seeing an increase in markets, and projections are for continued growth, according to Daniels.

The company is adding a 75,000-square-foot addition. The new addition will be devoted mainly to new powder paint and liquid paint systems, but will also include some assembly space too.

Construction will be getting under way soon with expectations for completion in the first quarter of 2012.

Hiring is already under way. The company is seeking workers for a variety of manufacturing positions, including assembly, welding, material handlers and forklift operators, and machine and laser cutter operators. It will also hire for some managerial positions.

The company's current work force comes from a roughly 40- to 50-mile radius of Benson, with the majority living in the immediate Benson area.

Daniels said the main challenge seems to be the relatively low number of people available in a rural area with a low population density.

That's despite an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent in Swift County, where there were 419 people actively seeking to re-enter the work force in July, according to figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Cameron Macht, regional analyst with the department's Willmar office, said the most recent unemployment figures for the area show rates varying from 5.9 percent in Pope County to 7.7 percent in Swift County.

The unemployment rate in Kandiyohi County is 6.5 percent, representing 1,634 people seeking to re-enter the work force. The active job seekers in Swift, Chippewa, and Pope counties combined adds up to roughly 1,500 potential workers.

But Macht is not at all surprised by the Benson company's dilemma.

"It's a skills issue and we hear it quite a bit,'' Macht said.

Minnesota, like much of the country, had been seeing a steady decline in the number of manufacturing jobs due to outsourcing and competition from overseas manufacturers. Macht said that many of those who had lost their jobs in manufacturing industries took advantage of re-training programs and are now employed or seeking employment in other sectors of the economy.

The number of students enrolling in technical college programs focused on manufacturing appears to have declined as well, he added.

Yet what many people do not realize is that manufacturing remains a very big part of this rural region's economy. Some of the state's rural areas have higher percentages of their work forces in manufacturing than do some urban areas. Macht said the concern among many is that as manufacturing rebounds, it will be difficult to find workers with the skill sets needed.

Manufacturing jobs in the region generally offer hourly pay at rates 20 to 25 percent above the regional average for hourly work, Macht said.

Daniels is optimistic that Case New Holland in Benson will be able to meet its employment needs in a timely fashion. It also offers on-the-job training and works with area technical colleges to assist workers looking to increase their skills.

He also pointed out that what the area may lack in quantity, it more than makes up in quality. The most important assets of its Benson operations, he explained, are its quality work force and the rural region's very strong work ethic.

Job hunters may apply via the company's website or at a kiosk in the Benson company's Case IH front office in Benson.

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