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Park Rapids seeks solutions to more jobs than people

Community Conversations participants, from left, Carolyn Pfeiffer, Ruth Ann Pachel, Dee Oliver, Sue Tomte and Barb Olson discuss the community’s perceived stalemate in attracting new industry due to lack of workers. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

     “This is historic,” Chamber director Nicole Lalum said. “It’s a first ever,” she said of the meeting of the minds to address why more jobs exist in the community than people to fill them, how this impacts businesses and individuals, and what will it take to create change.

     The construction of Century School was a “fantastic win,” she said, adding the Governor’s Fishing Opener put the city in the spotlight.

     “You are the champions in the community,” Lalum said, urging the sharing of “perspectives and stories.”

     A broad spectrum of ideas and concerns emerged, ranging from the lack of a vocational technical school, to a need for low-cost housing, noncompetitive wages and transportation.

     Some of the available jobs may not support a family, participants agreed.

     Wanting to work is a key component, Cleo Hartung, of Heritage Community, pointed out. “There are a lot of people who choose not to work, or lack a work ethic.”

     For some, acquiring the first job can be a frustrating, denigrating experience if the person meets several rejections. And there are jobs people don’t want to pursue, participants agreed.

     Heidi Korb of the Black Swan Cooperage said her business provides on-the- job training. “But we are still not able to get workers. The motivation is not there. We’ve seen significant turnover in the last two months.”

     She also cited a lack of willingness to work as a team.

     “We have a 12-month lead time for new orders,” she said.

     “The world is a different place from 20 years ago,” Hartung said. “And it trickles down from generation to generation.”

     “We want to entice businesses,” said Carolynne White, “but we won’t if we can’t fill jobs.”

     Butch DeLaHunt said employers work more hours when employees don’t show up for work, which leads to automation. “The jobs won’t be there in the future,” he cautioned.

     Linda Bair, who administrates the Heartland Express transportation service, suggested an expansion of community mentoring initiatives, citing Kinship and Living at Home as success stories.

     “A job training center doesn’t exist anymore,” Ruth Ann Pachel said, noting lack of available training may be a contributing factor.

     Several suggested a community-based job bank, “to create a job infrastructure.”

     Barb Olson of Heritage Living Center expressed frustration with having to fill shifts for absent workers. “I can’t do my job.”

     “There may be barriers at home,” Dee Oliver said of childcare, transportation - and chemical dependency.

     Scott Forsberg expressed frustration with employers unwilling to agree to a flexible schedule to accommodate his child’s needs.

     But Carolyn Pfeifer pointed out “exceptions to the rule” can create problems for other employees.

     Oliver noted a social strata, with differing values, exists. The middle class tends to focus on “material acquisition,” while those with lower incomes concentrate on “survival, relationships and entertainment,” which “offsets” the inherent stress.

     “We need to change the mindset,” Oliver said, to “instill resilience and perseverance.”

     Members at one of the roundtable discussions were apprised of some receiving benefits for “contrived disabilities,” with “enabling” part of the problem in society.

     It starts with parenting, participants agreed of setting an example, as opposed to child neglect, which appears to be on the rise.

     Children raised in a home whose parents are “struggling with a work ethic” tend to follow suit.

     What does it take to create change?

     Those speaking from experience said felonies on their record preclude employment, and expungement is a difficult process.

     The cost of training can be a barrier, said Michelle Fischer of Social Services, also endorsing a work force center.

     “Employers also need training,” she said of “misconceptions” that exist.

     Park Rapids has been a tourist destination, but with the number of resorts diminishing, “we need to switch that,” Fischer said.

     Linda Uscola advocated “creating a path out of poverty, maintaining benefit levels while creating careers.”

     “We’ve dropped the drawbridge,” Lalum said of opening lines of communication. Participation at the event, she said, exceeded expectations.

     “Park Rapids wants to get things done. We’re bringing poverty out of the shadows. Addressing it. We’re coming out our comfort zone. We’re creating change, talking to people we’ve never talked to before.”

     From this conversation, “strategies” will be developed for a discussion at a “next step” meeting to be held from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 5 at the Frank White Community Room.

     “It was a breaking down of us and them,” Lalum said after the meeting, “people ran the gamut,” she said of “microcosm” of the community represented.

     The purpose is to “seek out voices, to get everyone talking,” Lalum said.

     The discussions are sponsored by a Blandin Foundation grant. “Workforce issues are the topic we chose,” Lalum explained of the Northwoods Community Conversations.

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