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DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Where have all the workers gone?

There is no doubt our nation is in the midst of a labor shortage.

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A few weeks back, I had a local elected official call me up and ask, “Dave, what is going on with the workforce? Where have all the workers gone?”

It’s the most common question I hear nowadays, particularly since the start of the pandemic.

It is hard not to question what’s going on when virtually every business has a “Help Wanted” sign in their window, and many of our businesses have reduced hours due to limited staff.

There is no doubt our nation is in the midst of a labor shortage. To be clear the labor shortage was not caused by the pandemic, it only accentuated the issue.

The fact is we could see this coming. Demographics have pointed toward this day for over a decade as we have watched the baby boomers approach retirement without enough new entrants into the labor market to replace them.

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The tipping point was the summer of 2017 — the first time the number of available jobs in the U.S. exceeded the number of people looking for work.

Since then, the workforce challenge has only worsened. Today the ratio is roughly two open jobs for every available worker. As a result, economic development has shifted from a race for companies to a race for talent.

The regions that are most effective at growing and attracting a talented workforce will be the regions that grow and prosper.

The greater Bemidji region has done quite well in growing its workforce. Our workforce has increased by over 2,300 workers over the last decade, an increase of over 10%.

Comparatively, Mankato’s workforce grew by 1,800 (3.1%), St. Cloud’s grew by 2,800 (2.6%) and Duluth’s actually declined by nearly 3,000 workers (-2.1%).

If our workforce is growing so rapidly, why are we experiencing worker pressures? In simple terms, it’s because our job growth has exceeded our workforce growth. We have created 3,000 new jobs in the greater Bemidji region over the past decade, 600 more jobs than the number of people entering the workforce.

Anticipating this challenge, Greater Bemidji’s response began nearly a decade ago. We have a threefold focus: to grow, retain and attract a strong workforce.

Growing our workforce

Providing a strong educational foundation for students matters to workforce development. It’s why Greater Bemidji works in close partnership with the Bemidji schools, Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College.

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It is why we are a strong advocate for initiatives like the Bemidji Career Academies. It is also why Greater Bemidji was one of the first local economic development organizations in the state to create its own training center — the Minnesota Innovation Initiative.

Yet we have to do more. Not everyone is benefiting from the opportunities our growing economy has created.

Despite our significant job creation rate, the number of unemployed workers in the region has been consistent, averaging between 1,000 and 1,250 unemployed workers at any one time. Of those, roughly half have been unemployed for over four months.

While there are a lot of factors on why someone would be long-term unemployed, we know our unemployed are disproportionately both our low-income and our Indigenous community members.

Simply put, this can’t stand. We must do more to connect the long-term unemployed with employment opportunities.

Let’s create paths for re-entry into the workforce for those who might have had to battle drug issues and past issues with the law. Let’s be intentional about reaching out to re-skill in in-demand careers.

Ensuring everyone has access to the opportunities our growing economy presents must be a regionwide focus. Greater Bemidji doesn’t have the answers, but we stand ready to be a part of the solution.

Retaining our talent

The greater Bemidji region is blessed with an abundance of educational options for students. Unfortunately, after graduation, we are an exporter of talent.

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In any given year, a majority of the region’s graduates leave the area to start their careers. Yet when I speak to college students locally, virtually everyone is open to staying here and starting their career here.

This is an information gap we have to fill, and we are looking for great ideas. How do we make sure our students know of the opportunities available right here in our region? It’s critical we figure it out.

Attracting workers

At Greater Bemidji, we do more to recruit talent as much if not more than we do to recruit companies. Our latest effort is the 218 Relocate program , which works to encourage remote workers and their families to move to the region.

Our interest in developing signature, quality of life amenities are directly tied to attracting workers.

If economic development is a race for talent and workers can now live and raise a family virtually anywhere, then we at Greater Bemidji have to ask the question, “Why Bemidji?”

What separates us from other regions as a great place to live and raise a family? That is why we supported the development of the city’s outstanding park system.

It’s why we fought hard to build the Sanford Center and continue to advocate for its future. It's why we are working to ensure access to childcare and housing. And it is the motivation behind our current effort to develop a sports and wellness complex in partnership with Sanford Health within a larger private development in the city’s rail corridor.

Ultimately, the future of our community growth is directly tied to the region’s ability to grow, retain and attract a talented workforce. Our success will be based on our willingness to invest in our workforce and education systems.

The question shouldn’t be “where have all the workers gone?” Let’s ask instead, “How do we ensure our workers have access to our available jobs?” “How do we stop exporting talent?” and “How do we build a great community for ourselves and our future workforce?”

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

Related Topics: CITY OF BEMIDJI
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