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Workforce, housing needs discussed at legislative roundtable

Members of the Park Rapids business community and other interested stakeholders met last week with the state House’s Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Committee to discuss getting people to work and other workforce related needs.  The problem of finding qualified employees to fill a growing workforce shortage is a common discussion around Minnesota as the committee listened to concerns.  Numerous topics were discussed that factor into workforce development including how do communities like Park Rapids address the issue of more jobs available than qualified people to fill the need.  

“Bob Gunther, chairman of the House committee, said the committee is focused on Greater Minnesota issues and it’s very important to know what the state needs to do to help Greater Minnesota grow.  “Housing is generally a big issue across the state. We look at how to develop affordable workforce housing,” he said.  

The City of Park Rapids recently approved construction of a new 29-unit apartment building to address some of its housing needs.  Gunther stated when it comes to workforce housing communities look to what a person making $12-15 an hour can afford.  One of the issues discussed in this meeting, as well as similar meetings is Park Rapids has more jobs than can be filled with the existing workforce. One contention is people are choosing not to work but rather rely on available assistance.

The jobs are out there, it’s a matter of getting qualified people to work.  Lamb Weston/RDO, Park Rapids’ largest employer advertises openings at its plant and last month went through harvest season hiring fulltime and part-time workers.  Joel Steffel of RDO farms said the company farms 9,500 acres and employs 30-40 fulltime yearround. Steffel said this harvest season they hired 221 people for part-time seasonal work. The problem he finds is hiring enough people to work full season.  Gunther told the group statewide there are 1.2 times more jobs than people are looking for work.  

Danielle Norby of A Better Connection mental health services in Park Rapids pointed out some of the reasons making it more difficult for many people in the Park Rapids area.  Two of the things Norby hears about a lot with her clients are the lack of transportation and lack of affordable childcare. Oftentimes the high cost of childcare and lack of providers factor in to the workforce shortage.  Norby was recently named to the Governor’s advisory council on mental health.  Also discussed at the roundtable was the shift away from vocational and technical education having an impact on a workforce shortage.  Ted Thielen of Thielen Motors stated as an example vo-tech is disappearing in the high schools, and lack of vo-tech training makes it difficult to hire mechanics.  

Gary Gauldin, Park Rapids Area Schools board member, echoed Thielen’s concern about the shift away from vo-tech in schools.  Kim Norton, who is part of the House committee, said the state needs to look at finding ways to bring vo-tech back to the schools. She commented 4-year degrees are not for everyone and Minnesota has abandoned vo-tech as a state.  One area that is not hurting for skilled workers is Itasca Mantrap. Mike Monsrud, CEO and president, said they have no problem getting linemen because area schools are producing linemen and they are paid very well.   What Monsrud and other employers in the area, including retail businesses, are seeing is a difficulty in finding office staff and other employees.  

Attendees at the meeting discussed many applicants lack the soft skills training such as interpersonal, leadership, language and communication as well as vocational-technical studies at different levels of education.  Other workforce topics include the growing demand for more entry-level housing. A common problem brought up was the challenge for first-time homeowners who come in with a lot of debt from education.  The meeting in Park Rapids was put together in part by Rep. Steve Green and Rep. Dave Hancock, and facilitated by David Collins of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Committee.  The legislative group toured Lamb Weston/RDO prior to the meeting. Gunther said they got to see what they do at the plant and listened to the concerns of Lamb Weston about the DNR and other people.  

The group was in Bemidji earlier in the day for a similar legislative roundtable and heard a lot of the same concerns as what came out of the Park Rapids meeting.  “We’re trying to figure out a way to get people doing nothing to do something,” Gunther said.