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Skills gap apparent at Bemidji job fair

Mary Ulrich, left, Human Resources Director at Home at Heart Care, chats with Ida Brooks, a junior at BSU, and Brooks’ brother Lake, a senior at BHS, at this year’s Bemidji Regional Spring Job Fair. Nearly 50 businesses were there seeking job applicants, so many that some employers had to be turned away due to space constraints, organizers said. Zach Kayser | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — So many Bemidji area employers are hunting for job applicants that several of them had be turned away from a regional job fair Thursday.

Forty-five businesses operated booths at the Bemidji Regional Spring Job Fair held in the Sanford Center, but five or six more weren’t able to be there due to lack of space, organizers said. Although the region has some of the highest numbers of jobless people in Minnesota, area businesses are fighting to get employees.

“It’s nonsensical for us to have the highest unemployment rate in the state and still have this many companies looking for people,” Dave Hengel, director of economic development group Greater Bemidji, said at the event.

The hunger for applicants at Thursday’s fair might be a symptom of a “skills gap” said to be affecting manufacturing and trade employers especially, according to Hengel, where HR departments have trouble tracking down enough applicants who have the right qualifications. Although the gap is supposed to center on a lack of training among applicants, Hengel said that’s not the only factor causing the shortage.

“When I say ‘skills gap’ it’s not just about skills ... it’s about skills, it’s about recruitment and it’s about placement in jobs,” Hengel said. “People who need the jobs don’t hear about the jobs, or … don’t know how to access the right people to hire (them).”

A 2012 survey of employers conducted by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found 43 percent of job openings were “difficult to fill” and 36 percent were difficult at least partially because of “skills mismatches.” However, the survey findings cautioned against assuming difficulty in hiring people is solid proof that a skills gap exists, or the supposed gap is only due to lack of qualified candidates.

“Mismatches can result from recruiting strategies that do not properly identify the

desired skill set, unattractive job characteristics that discourage qualified candidates from

applying, or an over-qualified candidate pool as opposed to an under-qualified candidate pool,” the study stated.

Although the skills gap might not necessarily be due to lack of education, several employers at the fair said they’d love to see more schools in Bemidji that gave coursework in preparation for the jobs for which they’re hiring workers.

The employees manning the Karvakko Engineering booth said the company sometimes has to either get employees from schools outside the area, like the University of North Dakota, or lure them away from other Bemidji-area engineering firms since BSU doesn’t have a civil engineering program.

Justin Holley, head of human resources at North Central Door, said he’s having difficulty finding trained applicants to become metal benders and truck drivers at his company.

“You know what’d be really great in this town?” Holley said. “To have a truck driving school right here in Bemidji, Minn. If Northwest Technical College had a program like that, it would be very valuable.”

High schooler Jordan Kingbird wants to go into the science and engineering field eventually, but for now, he’s spent months trying to get the kind of job that will hire a 16-year-old.

“People are my age usually don’t get hired as often because they don’t have the skills,” he said.

Beltrami County’s unemployment rate for February stood at 7.5 percent, according to DEED data. That’s compared to neighboring Clearwater County’s 16.1 percent, Lake of the Woods County’s 5.2 percent and Itasca County’s 8.7 percent. The state average was 5.5 percent.