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Working together to address workforce challenges

Minnesota communities are responding to labor shortages

This article introduces Extension's Vital Connections On Air podcasts focused on Minnesota's workforce challenges. We hope you will listen to and subscribe to all Vital Connections On Air podcasts.

A more experienced worker training a new employee on cutting wood.

When Extension educator Christy Kallevig decided to focus a series of Vital Connections On Air podcasts on Minnesota's workforce issues, she didn't realize covering the issue would take six months — and then some.

"The onion layers just kept peeling off," she says. "Businesses can't fill jobs without able workers. Educators can't prepare workers to take jobs when they don't know how technology will change those jobs in five years. Workers can't take jobs if basics like child care and housing aren't available. And in a market where workers can be choosy, workers won't take jobs in communities or businesses where their needs and wants aren't met."

After hosting five podcast conversations on the issue, and with six more on the way, Kallevig empathizes with community and regional leaders who are grappling with local workforce challenges. "What part of the problem do you attack first? Where do you invest time and money? I hope that information and support from Extension and other organizations can help them navigate this complex issue."

"Imagine if Minnesota became the state that worked together and did a great job resolving our workforce challenges. Wouldn't that create exciting things for our future economy?"

— Laura Kalambokidis

Room for optimism

In an introduction to workforce issues, state economist and Extension colleague Laura Kalambokidis describes one "upside" that the workforce shortage could bring to Minnesota. She hopes that this can become an opportunity to bring people on the margins of the workforce into the mainstream. "At this point, we can't afford to leave anyone on the sidelines," she says. "Everyone needs to be participating in Minnesota's labor force."

"Smart businesses are getting creative," she says. She has seen that businesses are thinking about how older Minnesotans can work from home or even, in the case of older Minnesotans, from the boat. They are rethinking the mandatory qualifications that can come between good workers and good jobs. Agencies and advocates who know how to accommodate disabled workers or recruit from underemployed communities are making matches. Businesses are working with community leaders to create towns that are attractive to potential workers and welcome new residents.

"Imagine," says Kalambokidis, "if Minnesota became the state that worked together and did a great job resolving our workforce challenges. Wouldn't that create exciting things for our future economy?"

Listen to the podcasts:

Businesses looking for solutions

Bob Kill of Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization for Minnesota's manufacturing sector, joined Kallevig to describe the issue from a manufacturer's perspective. Enterprise Minnesota's annual survey of manufacturers spotted a workforce problem before the media reported on it.

"When I see articles saying we have a workforce problem, I kind of laugh because we've known this. We've been admiring this problem for years. What I see now — communities, high schools, technical colleges, economic development, and local chambers are rallying."

He gives examples where businesses are working with communities to address the issue. An individual in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, for example, donated a million dollars to the school system to help schools address workforce needs. And when Hutchinson, Minnesota built a new high school, manufacturers committed more than $1.6 million to fund curriculum and facilities that help students understand what a career in modern manufacturing is really like.

Kill appreciates organizations like the Initiative Foundations in Greater Minnesota for valuing manufacturers, especially in rural areas of the state where, as past surveys have shown, some of the biggest problems exist.

MN manufacturing vacancies
2017 State of Manufacturing Survey Results

And he shares some of Kalambokis' optimism about Minnesota's ability to solve these problems. "There are issues, but they are rising to the top better than they have for a long time," he says. "We are more concerned about the vitality of the communities we're talking about. We need a vibrant Greater Minnesota economy."

Listen to the podcast: Manufacturing in Minnesota

Child care challenges

Map of child care desert in MN
Child care desert in Minnesota.
Source: Center for American Progress

As the baby boomer generation leaves the workforce, many women boomers are leaving the child care profession. That, in addition to difficult business conditions, has caused child care businesses to close and created a crisis for families looking for day care. That issue, too, is worse in Greater Minnesota where populations are sparse.

"A lot of people are thinking we need to look at child care differently. This isn't just a personal family issue. Communities are starting to come together … to find solutions."

Kallevig invited Marnie Werner, director of research at the Center for Rural Policy, to talk about Minnesota's child care issues. Werner shared insights from research she led on the issue, which was published by the Center in 2016.

"A lot of people are thinking we need to look at child care differently. This isn't just a personal family issue. Communities are starting to come together … to find solutions," says Werner.

For example, one small city waived licensing fees for anyone who wanted to open a day care, and city leaders in Clinton, Minnesota worked with a local church congregation to gift their closed building to a child care entrepreneur. "It's those kinds of community solutions that will be the most successful," she said.

Werner is optimistic about the role education can play in stimulating community action. "I think once people understand the economic forces at work in day care operations — what makes it difficult to operate a day care in a sparsely populated area — they can start looking for solutions … Once you understand the economic forces at work, you can deal with what you know and work with what you have."

Listen to the podcasts:

The workforce series

Our 2018 series on Minnesota's workforce covered the gamut of workforce issues. Listen to the podcasts.

Episode 11: Glenwood's housing study results
Many communities in Minnesota face workforce housing issues. Listen as we talk about Glenwood's housing study and how understanding existing workers' needs helps them plan for the future.

Episode 12: Minnesota's changing workforce
Minnesota's workforce is changing. Our workers are aging and new employees are often newcomers to our country. Listen as we discuss the impact of immigrants in our labor market.

Episode 13: The importance of immigrants to Minnesota's businesses
Minnesota's business community is on the front line of addressing workforce issues. Listen as we explore what is happening and how companies are supporting immigrants and immigration policy.

Episode 14: Understanding rural small business succession
Business owners are a critical part of rural Minnesota's workforce and local leadership. But selling a small business is not the same as selling a house. Listen as we discuss how business owners and buyers can prepare for this transition and how communities can help.

Episode 15: Making business succession planning successful
How do you plan for a successful business transition? Sharing resources and building supportive relationships can help. In this episode, hear how Spring Valley, Minnesota created a program that helps business owners.

Episode 16: Workforce wrap up - it’s the people
How can we create a vibrant Minnesota workforce? Listen to a variety of speakers share insight on workforce issues and how to prepare and help those affected.

Episode 17: Key workforce issues
How do we address Minnesota's workforce issues? Listen to speakers from the University of Minnesota and Extension share their insight on the labor market.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe via Apple Podcasts to be notified of new podcasts.

Author: Joyce Hoelting

Reviewed in 2022

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