Worker shortage plagues St. Cloud

Minnesota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1996  | January 1996 issue

The unemployment rates in the St. Cloud area are a measure of the dilemma business people face in hiring skilled and unskilled workers: In November the St. Cloud metropolitan statistical area, including Benton and Stearns counties, reported 2.9 percent unemployment.

"A lot of employers all over the area are hurting for workers," says Warren Determan, jobs service account representative for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security. And businesses seem to have adjusted production until the work force grows, Determan suggests. A few employers, he says, are even busing people from surrounding rural communities to get them to work. But right now, Determan says, there aren't enough people who aren't working. "Sixty percent to 70 percent of the people who come into our office are just looking for something better."

Tony Goddard, president of the St. Cloud Area Economic Development Partnership, is convinced that local companies are finding themselves constrained, and if they choose to grow they might have to go elsewhere. "Job growth has outstripped the growth of the labor force," Goddard says. And people aren't moving into the region in sufficient numbers because the wages are not high enough, he adds, especially at entry level, for some to afford housing.

There are two types of worker shortages, Goddard says: entry-level and skilled, especially machinists, welders, and the like.

To compound the problem: It is likely that business expansion on the northern end of the Twin Cities is having an impact on St. Cloud's work force, Determan says. "It's an available market only about an hour away and the wage scale is higher."

The wage differential between St. Cloud and Twin Cities' jobs encourages people to drive south and east rather than north and west to St. Cloud, Goddard says. So workers halfway between those regions in towns like Elk River and Buffalo will tend to commute to the Twin Cities.

"What's unusual about the situation [in St. Cloud]," Goddard says, "is the large student population." Over 15,000 students attend St. Cloud State University, with another 5,000 at three other institutions. Most work at least part time, Goddard says. Out of a local work force of 100,000, about 20,000 are students. To make the most of that work force segment, some manufacturers have gone to flexible work schedules to accommodate students. And without those students, the worker shortage would be much more serious.

Kathy Cobb