Squeeze on workforce numbers and skills in south central region

Minnesota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1997  | January 1997 issue

Low unemployment and industrial growth suggest a healthy economy in south central Minnesota, but reports of an increasingly tight work force lacking in skills have some worried.

The Initiative Fund of southeastern and south central Minnesota and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, jointly conducted a study last year to determine what industries need to continue to compete and prosper in the region, which includes the cities of Red Wing, Owatonna, Rochester and Mankato. The top issue identified by survey respondents was finding qualified workers. The survey was directed at the four predominant regional industry clusters (composites; printing, publishing and software; industrial machinery and computer manufacturing; and food processing), and respondents noted deficiencies in problem solving, ability to work in teams, leadership skills, and math, science and computer literacy.

Trixie Ann Golberg, executive director of the Southeastern Minnesota Initiative Fund, says the business survey clearly articulates labor force issues, that is, a clear skills gap and a lack of sheer numbers of potential workers. "The industries that we think of as the backbone of our region may not be in five or 10 years if we don't solve these issues," Golberg says.

And a shortage of appropriate housing compounds the labor problem, Golberg adds. "Housing is the real chicken and egg." A business will recruit people, who then can't find housing and the deal could fall through, she says.

In Mankato, which has had an unemployment rate below 3 percent over the last three years, economic development efforts have been successful, says Louise Dickmeyer, executive director of the Valley Industrial Development Corp. But while the Mankato area continues to draw new businesses and manufacturers, Dickmeyer says she's concerned about existing businesses satisfying their employment needs. To bolster the local workforce, Dickmeyer says, efforts are focused on retaining more graduates from Mankato State University. The community needs to communicate better the career opportunities in the area with students and provide more nonstudent housing for young singles, Dickmeyer adds.

Kathy Cobb