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.
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 are 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 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.
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
As the baby boomer generation leaves the work force, 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 kind 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 podcast: The Child Care Challenge for Minnesota's Workforce
Our series on Minnesota's workforce isn't over. Join us for the following upcoming episodes.
- Topic: West Central Initiative's investment in child care
Guest: Greg Wagner, business and economic development director with West Central Initiative
- Topic: Housing needs of your community
Guests: Ryan Pesch, Extension community economics educator, and Scott Formo Sr., executive director of the Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce
- Topic: Research on immigrants in Minnesota's workforce
Guest: Ryan Allen, Extension leadership and civic engagement specialist and associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs
- Topic: Importance of immigrants in Minnesota's workforce
Guest: Bill Blazar, senior vice-president for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce
- Topic: Research on housing initiatives across the state and ways your community can be involved
Guest: Merritt Busierre, Extension community economics educator
The series will also include a look at Extension research about succession planning for rural businesses. As baby boomers retire, communities can help them transition their business to a new owner.