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Help wanted for rural workforce, housing problems

By Don Davis


“Help wanted” signs hang in front of businesses and factories throughout rural Minnesota and in many communities even if those jobs are filled, workers may not find homes nearby.

Training workers and building homes are two parts of the same problem that rural legislators hope to fix. The workforce issue is one of the major ones that will be brought to St. Paul by rural lawmakers, who will control the Minnesota House and say the problem hinders economic growth in their districts.

The 2015 Legislature begins at noon Tuesday.

“We want to enjoy the growth,” Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said. “It is a nice place to live.”

He just has to look in his own district to explain the problem. The town of Jackson, population about 3,300, hosts an industrial park with 2,100 workers, taking all available housing.

A major farm tractor manufacturer is always looking for workers, as are other area businesses. Some manufacturers have pulled out of the community because there was not enough housing for workers, Gunther said.

From his southern Minnesota district to those in the north, the story is similar. In northwest Minnesota’s Perham, for instance, the company that makes Barrel O’ Fun snack foods last summer took to recruiting Ukrainians and busing them the 24 miles from Wadena because workers and housing for them are scarce.

Further north, in Thief River Falls, Digi-Key and other businesses create another housing and employee crunch.

“We’re very fortunate,” Mayor Jim Gagg said earlier this year. “We have 8,600 residents and we have 10,000-plus jobs in our community. That’s just a wonderful thing, but it leaves us with a housing problem.”

Gov. Mark Dayton often talks about Digi-Key, one of the country’s fastest-growing electronic companies. Dayton points to a problem the company has getting trained workers.

A college across the street from Digi-Key has an architectural engineering program, he said in a recent interview, but not a mechanical engineer program the company needs.

One of his goals during the nearly five-month legislative session is to get state-run colleges to train workers Minnesota companies need.

Many legislators say there is too much emphasis placed on a four-year degree.

“There are good jobs in the technical area,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said.

However, Rep. Bud Nornes said, there are some state rules that make it more difficult to get funding for adults to be retrained. As chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, the Fergus Falls Republican said that he hopes to drop those roadblocks.

Dayton and lawmakers have increased spending for housing, but in the interview Dayton did not appear ready to dramatically increase housing aid. He said that builders will step up and increase housing starts once it is apparent that the need will remain over the long term.

“I don’t think we are going to be able to significantly impact” the rural housing shortage, the governor said.

Gunther said he hopes the state can help. People are living in Iowa to work in Jackson, he said, and he would rather see them in Minnesota.

His southern Minnesota district alone has lost 17,000 people since the 1960s, said Gunther, who will lead the newly created House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Committee.

“We want to have anything that impacts growth and prosperity eliminated as much as possible,” Gunther said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that housing is a critical issue in some greater Minnesota communities, but like others he is not sure just how the Legislature can solve it.

“It seems like some kind of state (financial) bridge to make those projects is going to be required,” he said.

As a carpenter, Bakk said that housing construction costs about the same in the Twin Cities and rural Minnesota. “You can’t get (rural) rent payments or mortgage payments high enough to work, like they do in the Twin Cities, where wages are higher.”

Bakk predicted that the Senate will put money into one fund that could help rural housing and could tweak another fund to help greater Minnesota.

“Our focus is going to be on things that try to improve the economy,” Bakk said. “That probably is not as demanding a need in the metropolitan area, but in a whole lot of rural areas in the state they are not sharing in this economic recovery.”

Dayton said that a minimum wage increase he championed is helping rural Minnesotans afford housing. Anderson, however, said wages are higher than the minimum wage, making it “almost a nonfactor.”

“Do you subsidize housing or do you say wages should be higher so they can afford housing?” Anderson asked. “That is a tough question.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.