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Worker experience: Workers in the Upper Midwest struggle to find jobs that meet financial needs

A recent Minneapolis Fed survey reveals how some workers are looking for jobs with higher pay, better benefits, and more flexibility but are struggling to find them

September 6, 2023


Haley Chinander Writer/Analyst
Erick Garcia Luna Director, Regional Outreach
Photo collage with housekeepers on the left and a small town's main street on the right
Cara Ewing/Minneapolis Fed

Article Highlights

  • Survey respondents seeking occupational changes were mostly looking for higher wages and better benefits
  • Mismatches between available jobs and workers’ needs kept many from reaching their objectives
  • Rising cost of living often impacted occupational decisions
Worker experience: Workers in the Upper Midwest struggle to find jobs that meet financial needs

After nearly two years of particularly tight labor market conditions, things may be starting to cool down. Employment and labor force participation have been inching higher, the rate of people voluntarily leaving their jobs has slowed, and job openings have been on a somewhat steady decline since early 2022.

Even as employment options may be thinning, some people are still looking for better opportunities, including those who are already employed, according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis survey of workers and job seekers.1 Whether employed or not, many job seekers reported being constrained by a variety of obstacles in their search for a better employment fit.2

This survey is part of an ongoing effort by the Minneapolis Fed to better understand workers’ experiences and how job seekers view current opportunities in today’s labor market. Their perspectives help the Minneapolis Fed have a more comprehensive understanding of economic conditions across the region, which ultimately can inform monetary policy.

A picture of job seekers

The survey received responses from 450 individuals who work across a variety of occupations, from bartenders and accountants to janitors and nurses. While most respondents were employed (411), some were retired (27), and a very small fraction were unemployed (12).

Three-quarters of those who reported demographic characteristics identified as female and a quarter as male. Most respondents identified as White, and a very small share identified as American Indian, Black, or Hispanic. Ages ranged from 16 to 84 years old, with a median age of 48.

Among those reporting their education level, the pool was split equally between those with a high school diploma or less and those with a two- or four-year college degree or more. Nearly half of respondents reported earning wages under $20 per hour or an equivalent salary.

Making changes in the labor market

Most employed respondents were looking to stay put at their current job, but a notable 20 percent wanted to make some type of change to their employment situation.

The majority of these change-seekers were full-time workers with widespread tenures. More than a quarter of those who started their current job in the last year were already looking to make changes. Over a third had been at their job between one and five years, and nearly 37 percent had been with their current employer for five years or more.

Predominantly, these workers wanted to increase their pay and get better benefits. Personal income for the group skewed lower, with the majority making under $50,000 a year. Over half were the sole income providers for their families. Many were seeking to improve their finances by looking for a new job, although a slightly lower number were pushing for higher pay at their current jobs.

“I would stay at my current job, but the pay has not risen with inflation, and they refuse to give us raises,” commented a security guard from Wisconsin.

Some pursued financial stability by seeking second jobs to boost their income. A professor in South Dakota mentioned she needed a second job “to make ends meet.” Another educational worker in North Dakota was working to get more hours in her current role while also looking for another part-time job. The second job “needs to be something fun and easy that would be enjoyable,” she commented.

Obstacles to change

For a majority of employed workers who reported they are trying to change jobs, this decision was recent: Most had been trying to make changes in the last six months, and nearly 40 percent had been trying to make changes in the last three months. Far fewer had been trying for over a year.

Respondents reported varying degrees of difficulty with getting a new job or making changes at their current job. Respondents often said that available jobs did not offer the wages needed to make the switch (Figure 1). Others mentioned they lacked skills and experience for the jobs they were finding.

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“All the jobs that I would like to work for, experience [is] needed, but I can't get experience without working the job,” responded a Minnesota services worker.

Difficulties with getting flexible scheduling or nontraditional hours were also cited as barriers, although with less frequency than finding jobs with better pay. “My current job won’t work with me on hour flexibility,” commented a part-time paraprofessional in North Dakota. “My son has a disability, so it makes it hard on me.” After trying to make changes in her current job, she shifted her focus to looking for a new job that would give her the flexibility she needed.

While 20 percent of respondents were actively trying to change their current employment situation, 53 percent of all survey takers expressed a desire for a higher wage, with most looking for a raise between $1 and $7 an hour. “A 3 to 5 dollars per hour raise would help more than anything,” shared the long-time manager of a thrift store in Salem, South Dakota.

Though wages have increased over the last few years, not everyone is seeing a net benefit to their bottom line. Recent high prices on household basics like food, energy, fuel, and shelter have only aggravated the situation for many. More than a quarter of respondents reported feeling stress about their ability to pay their energy bills, mortgage or rent, and groceries.

“While both my spouse and I have worked full-time, our wages have stagnated or decreased but expenses increased,” shared a clerical worker in Minnesota. Similarly, a worker in Iron Mountain, Michigan, said that she sometimes does not even get a cost-of-living raise, “which stinks with the cost of everything going up all the time.”

Amid heightened prices, the apparent mismatch between available jobs and job seekers’ needs adds complexity to the web of challenges workers must face in their pursuit of improved employment and living conditions.

“There’s no daycare, jobs don’t pay much, and you can barely make ends meet with inflation,” commented a health care work in western Minnesota. “I'm hoping to be able to afford stuff as things go up and wages stay the same.”


1 These survey results were not obtained from a random sample of the general population but from a growing list of worker contacts who have shared their experiences with the Minneapolis Fed. They should be interpreted as a systematic collection of anecdotes and qualitative insights about individuals’ experiences rather than a quantitative estimate.

2 This survey was conducted in partnership with SEIU Local 26, and Community Action Partnership agencies in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Haley Chinander

Haley Chinander is an analyst and writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In her role, Haley tracks and reports on the Ninth District economy with a focus on labor markets and business conditions. Follow her on Twitter @haleychinander.

Erick Garcia Luna
Director, Regional Outreach

Erick Garcia Luna is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. In this role, he focuses on gathering and analyzing economic intelligence on the regional economy to help inform the work of the Fed. Follow him on Twitter @ErickGarciaLuna.