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Potential labor shortages as boomers retire

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Labor analysts don't want Hubbard County to become a population of slackers.

Last week's increase in the minimum wage law had little impact on the county since most employers already pay above it.

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But other workplace issues could potentially pose a real threat - a looming labor shortage and too many people not joining the workforce.

Labor analysts predict that in three years, when Baby Boomers start retiring, the regional workforce could be so depleted that if people aren't trained immediately to begin assuming those jobs, counties, including Hubbard, will be forced to import workers.

The region's workforce - currently listed at 205,270 strong, is projected to grow by nearly 12 percent in the next eight years, according to figures just released by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The region is the 26-county area of northwest Minnesota.

Only 62 percent of Hubbard County's workforce actually stays in the county, a 2005 DEED study found. Of the outgoing workers, 29 percent go to Beltrami and Cass counties for their work days.

Labor analysts want to ensure that this growing population of potential workers has the right jobs, ones that pay well, and, more importantly, jobs that become vacant. And because Hubbard County has one of the lowest participation rates in its working population, labor experts think they can kill two birds with one stone.

Only 60 percent of the county's eligible workers are actually at work, compared with the state average of 71.2 percent.

"There's a big untapped resource of workers here already," said Nathan Dorr, a labor market analyst for the Bemidji Workforce Center, a division of DEED. He said those unemployed workers, all 40 percent of them, need to get retrained - pronto.

"We're seeing a workforce shortage," Dorr said. "There's not going to be enough people to fill those workforce projections. We need to match up the skills with those occupations in demand and that are projected to grow."

According to DEED labor analysts, Hubbard County is above the state average in aging workers, using 2000 Census figures. While the state population's median age was 35.4 years old at the time, Hubbard County skews older - we were a median age of 41.8 years old.

As the Baby Boomers have aged in the past eight years, both the county and state median ages have risen, Dorr said. The median age means that half of the population is younger than those figures and half is older.

And the county's labor force is less educated overall than the state's workforce. Twenty-seven percent of Minnesotans are college educated. Only 20 percent of Hubbard County's workforce has a bachelor's degree, DEED analysts indicated in a 2005 study.

Dorr said the county and region must act quickly to "grow our own workforce.

"There's a sense of urgency with the Boomers retiring in three to four years and that's when that's going to get big," he said.

Several groups, including labor experts from the college and technical school systems, foundations and workforce centers, have undertaken a study of workforce issues. The consensus is to get people educated and get them to work.

And although the wages paid are above minimum, overall, wages in the region are lower, sometimes by a wide margin, than those in the US and in the rest of the state. Analysts surveyed four vital sub-sectors of occupations: education, manufacturing, food and hospitality and retail related businesses. All of the occupations in each group were below the state and national average for each profession.

Dorr said retraining workers, and the unemployed, will break "a culture of poverty" and stop perpetuating generations of working poor.

"We believe we can retrain and re-skill and tap into those people given some specialized training," Dorr said. "It takes a couple years to get a technical degree of marketable skill. That will bring up their wages, give them steady employment, solve the poverty issue and give business the skilled workers they need to be competitive globally."

Of course, these lofty goals will cost hefty sums of money from the state, the federal government and counties anxious to avoid a brain drain, an out-migration of people looking for jobs elsewhere.

Interestingly, 18 percent of employers already give workers education assistance funds, or reimburse the cost of their retraining. A quarter of regional employers give their workers a hiring bonus or a bonus for referring qualified applicants to the company.

But the DEED study also points out that the low regional and county salaries will discourage in-migration from other regions or states.

"The agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry is an exception," the study indicates. "Regional jobs in this industry pay, on average, 22 percent more than statewide."

And the study found that from the strongest growth (2002 to 2004) was in industries that benefit from the booming popularity of the region's lakes and pines." But that growth was "overwhelmed by the loss of government jobs."

Dorr said some factors need to be addressed before groups of people head for the classroom. Many need transportation or treatment for chemical dependency issues that prevent them from being employable.

Seasonal workers need to be retrained since they comprise the majority of the unemployed. Social workers need to deal with cultural factors that perpetuate poverty and the familial stigma that is an obstacle to employment.

But employers also have a role in keeping jobs filled, Dorr's studies show. They should focus on retention and training at all levels, nurture work relationships between supervisors and workers and engage in strategic planning so that when the Baby Boomers leave the workplace, younger, trained workers are waiting in the wings.

And where are those jobs going to be? "Healthcare is clearly a top job and wage generator," the study notes of the Headwaters Region, Beltrami, northern Hubbard and parts of Beltrami, Clearwater, Mahnomen, Clearwater and Lake of the Woods counties. Other projected job openings will occur in computers and math fields, food preparation and serving, transportation, sales and administrative support occupations and community and social services.

Most of the available jobs will occur because those retiring Baby Boomers will need to be looked after.

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