STAPLES, Minn. — With representatives from agriculture, construction, education, mining, hospitality, trucking and timber, there was no shortage of concern over the need for workers right now during a gathering Thursday, April 8, in central Minnesota.
The pathways to bring people into these industries came as one of the top focuses of panelists when sharing with 8th District Congressman Pete Stauber and 7th District Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach at Central Lakes College in Staples, Minn. In related concerns, the communities noted the need for housing, child care, broadband and health care for those hired and to expand operations locally.
The range of industries represented show workforce development is an issue that ties them all together, as CLC president Hara Charlier said. With the lack of workers, one business is down 100 employees of their goal, other small businesses are closing early despite having customers at that time and residents are turned away from a care center. These shortages weren’t created by the pandemic, though certainly affected by it. The issue has become prevalent over the last five to 10 years, as panelists said.
“Labor is tough,” said Joe Henry, director of tourism for Lake of the Woods. “Not only is it tough to attract employees, it’s also difficult because a lot of these small businesses, resorts, hotels and restaurants, they don’t offer full benefits, they don’t offer sign-on bonuses, they’re small businesses.”
Arvig director of sales and business David Schornack noted the need for construction workers as more and more broadband is being added.
Industry leaders said they need help, but they also have ideas and partnerships ready for the workforce programs to develop. Jason George, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, shared about a program already in place where people are finishing training with equipment they know how to work rather than debt.
The large number of job openings points to a broken system, as Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji Inc., said. While the gaps are at multiple levels, panelists reminded Stauber and Fischbach that how these jobs are portrayed and discussed is important, and as the federal government sets the incentives and metrics then the systems will adjust, Hengel said.
Students, parents, grandparents and schools need expanded understandings of these opportunities, too, such as earning a wage and a skill in a profession the student might love without going to a four-year college.
“They’re (two-year colleges) so important to rural life and making sure that we are able to have the strong local communities that we all want,” Fischbach said.
Schornack is also part of an initiative called Grow Perham, which has added apartments in Perham, Minn., over the past half-decade. The goal is to bring people to the area, and bring their commitment to the local community. Otter Tail County also formed the Community Development Agency to continue building relationships for support in child care, housing and broadband about two and half years ago.
“If we don’t solve these issues, the people that are interested in coming, if they’re interested in expanding, are going to go outside the state,” Schornack said. “Now this isn’t just a regional problem, this is going to become, I think, a statewide problem.”
The focus on housing also has to include senior residents, who might not have options of living another place. By providing these options, workers could live in older homes that would be more affordable rather than always the expensive new construction.
As employers are working with local school districts to invigorate students about staying local and the options beyond a four-year college, the school systems also need to catch up, as panelists remarked.
The requirements at the school level, like chemistry, physics and Algebra II, also make it difficult for schools to offer more vocational training for students, as Staples-Motley Superintendent Shane Tappe said. The school was able to extend their career and technical education program another year with a hired teacher. Programs like these should be increasing school districts federal funding rather than worrying if they will lose money based off of certain programs classifying students outside of their district, as George said.
The industries also must gain interest from the next generation for these professions. Stauber sought to promote jobs, even those considered stepping stones, as vital to the economies of this region.
“I think it’s important that … we recognize the dignity of the job,” Stauber said. “Whatever job we have, and we need them, do it the best and we honor that work. We honor that work because before we can have a better job, you have to have a job. If you want to be a garbage hauler, be the best garbage hauler in the area.”