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DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: A tip of the hat to our region’s workers

As a community, we need to support our workers and recognize the critical importance they serve in our region’s economic prosperity.

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This past Monday, our nation paused for Labor Day to celebrate our workers.

Labor Day became a national Holiday in 1894 when labor activists advocated for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to our nation’s strength, prosperity and well-being. It was right to honor our workers back then and remains equally appropriate today.

Thank you to all our workers. Whether you are working in a blue or white-collar job in hospitality, manufacturing, construction, professional services or any other industry, we at Greater Bemidji are grateful for all you do.

When you think about growing our region’s economy and encouraging economic development, it is easy to focus solely on supporting the start-up, expansion and recruitment of businesses.

No doubt, we cannot grow and prosper in the greater Bemidji region without private sector investment and risk. We need successful, profitable companies. At Greater Bemidji, we work hard to ensure all our entrepreneurs and businesses have the support and resources they need to succeed.

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But that is only half the economic development equation. Sophocles once said, “Without labor, nothing prospers.” As a community, we need to support our workers and recognize the critical importance they serve in our region’s economic prosperity.

There may never have been a better time than now to recognize the importance of our workforce. Right now, Minnesota has the tightest labor markets in our nation. There are currently four available jobs for every worker actively seeking a job. While this doesn’t account for underemployed and discouraged workers (who have given up quit seeking work), there is no doubt we are experiencing the tightest labor market in our state’s history.

As I have shared in a past column, while the pandemic accentuated the labor shortage, it did not create it. Demographics have pushed us to this edge, driven primarily by the rapid retirement of the baby boom generation without the same quantity of workers to replace them. It’s clear the workforce challenges we face are not going away any time soon.

As we watch businesses shut their doors or cut hours due to a lack of staff, could the importance of workers for our community’s economic prosperity be any clearer?

At Greater Bemidji, we are working to address the labor force challenge by supporting our workers. We want to provide the workforce the support and resources it needs to succeed just as we are supporting our business community.

Here are a few examples:

  • We know that there are increasing barriers to work and are trying to address some of the challenges. As an example, access to affordable childcare has become a crisis for many families. We are working to address the issue head-on by supporting our in-home childcare providers and developing and expanding childcare centers in the region. 
    We are also looking to make a positive difference on several other additional workforce challenges, including workforce housing, transportation and building an inclusive economy where all to prosper.
  • We recognize that workers may not have been given the opportunity to grow the skills required for the jobs they are interested in. That is the reason we created the Minnesota Innovation Initiative (MI2) nearly a decade ago. 
    MI2 is Greater Bemidji’s training center focused on supporting workers interested in high-paying manufacturing careers. MI2 trains and places 100-plus workers in careers every year. A vast majority are low-income workers seeking good-paying careers. We need similar training opportunities for a variety of industries.
  • The work culture is also in a state of flux. Many workers are looking for flexibility to ensure a work-life balance. We are encouraging businesses, when possible, to provide flexibility — flexibility in hours, work schedule, remote work, etc.
  • Finally, I have never met a worker who doesn’t want a higher wage. How do you increase wages? I can hear my economics professor’s voice whispering that you increase wages by creating more demand for workers. In other words, the best way to create higher wages is by creating more jobs.
    The other way to increase wages is by increasing worker productivity. Both creating jobs and investing in worker productivity are central tenants to economic development.

Of course, this is just the beginning. We really need to stay focused on understanding the challenges our workers face and addressing them as best we can. If you have ideas of how we can serve our workers better, please let us know. I’d love to hear from you.
One thing is very clear — the future of our region’s economy requires both our businesses and our workers are successful and prospering.

Carrying on the theme of “Which Way, Bemidji?” I challenge our community to choose to get beyond the old paradigm that it is workers versus business owners. I simply don’t see it in our community.

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I see workers who work hard and care about their jobs and business owners who care a lot about their workers and want the best for them.

We are all in this together. The only way we grow economic prosperity in our region is by supporting and honoring both our business owners and our outstanding workforce.

Dave Hengel is the executive director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development. He can be reached at (218) 444-5757 or dhengel@greaterbemidji.com.

More columns from Dave Hengel
For us to continue to ensure a successful community here in Bemidji, we have to resist the temptation to just discuss, argue, spin and do nothing. There is simply too much long-range risk in comfortable inaction.

Related Topics: CITY OF BEMIDJI
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