Quality of Life: Microbiologics CEO Brad Goskowicz (center) persuaded Brian Beck and Linh Nguyen to move to St. Cloud to persue opportunities with the growing company.
Central Minnesota is booming. But its employee pool is shrinking. Here's how creativity and openness are leading to continued prosperity.
By Gene Rebek | Photography by John Linn
In 2009, the year Brad Goskowicz became CEO of Microbiologics, the St. Cloud-based bioscience firm had 55 employees. It now has 120, and as of late June he had five openings to fill. Microbiologics has a distinctive product—microbial biomaterials such as bacteria, viruses and microscopic parasites that are freeze-dried but still viable. These biomaterials are shipped worldwide so that customers such as food-production laboratories and hospitals can make sure the quality control of their systems is operating at peak efficiency, without potentially dangerous bugs slipping in.
It’s a business that requires specialized scientific talent, which Goskowicz has been able to find and attract to Central Minnesota. And his company is just one of the reasons why Central Minnesota has evolved from a region that was economically struggling just 30 years ago to one that’s second only to the Twin Cities metropolitan area as a job-creation leader.
According to data gathered by Minnesota Compass, a demographics project of the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, the number of jobs in Central Minnesota grew by 12 percent between 2000 and 2014. That’s compared to 4.6 percent statewide during the same period. Though the Twin Cities metro has a national reputation as an economic powerhouse, its job creation rate over those years was just 1.6 percent. What’s more, the metro area’s total increase in jobs was actually less than Central Minnesota, though the Twin Cities employs far more people.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the region. But success also brings challenges. Today, many employers across Central Minnesota are finding it increasingly difficult to attract the skilled workers they need to grow and meet customer demand. Along with competition from other burgeoning businesses, employers also are contending with the retirements from the Baby Boomer generation—a demographic wave that isn’t even near its crest.
At the same time, Central Minnesota, like many regions throughout the Midwest, is competing with other states for good workers; midwestern states in general have been losing population to warmer climes. Among other things, that means Minnesota needs to attract and train immigrants and other newcomers. Failing to do so could overshadow the generally sunny economic conditions Central Minnesota has been savoring for the past decade and a half.
First off, why has the region become so strong? In a word: connectivity. “Central Minnesota is uniquely situated to benefit from different types of economic activity, and the labor force in Central Minnesota continues to grow faster than any other region of the state,” said Luke Greiner, the St. Cloud-based central and southwest Minnesota regional analyst for the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
Greiner notes that the region’s highway network, notably Interstate 94, and access to a regional airport are important lines of connection, as is the proximity to the Twin Cities and its international airport. “The transportability of the area bodes well for moving goods and accessing labor,” he said. Meanwhile, customers across the globe are discovering (often via the Internet) that the region has products that are hard to find elsewhere. Among other things, this means that companies like Microbiologics that were founded in Central Minnesota don’t need to move elsewhere as they grow. “We’re doing well in the United States, but we’re growing much faster outside the United States,” Goskowicz said. The company, an Initiative Foundation loan client and winner of the 2013 Outstanding Enterprise Award, distributes its products in 142 countries and has sales offices worldwide. But most of his workforce is in St. Cloud—even as his company (like many others in the region) connect with markets far beyond Central Minnesota.
The region also has attracted employers from outside the United States to expand here, including German agricultural machinery maker Geringhoff and Canadian bus manufacturer New Flyer. Whether immigrant or homegrown, manufacturing firms have long been a keystone of the region’s economic strength. According to Greiner, Central Minnesota manufacturers added the most jobs among the major industry sectors with 1,156 new jobs during the first three quarters of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. The construction industry is right behind, adding 998 jobs during the same timeframe.
DEED projects that the labor force will grow by 4.1 percent from 2015 to 2025, which is slower than the 6.9 percent job growth from 2004 to 2014. “It’s near certain that population and labor force growth will be slower in the next decade than it has in the past,” Greiner said. “It’s a future where success will depend on high participation rates of labor, and more efficiently aligning educational paths with the demands of the local economy." Finding workers has become increasingly tough now that unemployment rates have decreased. In fact, the most recently reported unemployment rate for Central Minnesota is 4.1 percent for June, which means that just 15,899 workers are looking for work. “It’s a great thing from a social standpoint, but it can create challenges for any organization looking to fill vacancies,” said Grenier. DEED’s data shows that the region had 11,176 job vacancies in the fourth quarter of 2015, nearly 2,500 more than the previous year. Some of this growth may not be new jobs, Greiner said, or represent a larger amount of job openings that aren’t being filled, or are taking longer to be filled. Based on these numbers, the region faces a significant challenge in keeping its businesses fully staffed. But as Greiner also observed, “What that data doesn’t tell us is the skill levels of the unemployed population, or the barriers they might be facing.”
Central Minnesota and the World
Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower noted in a recent presentation to the Initiative Foundation’s Emerging Leaders Program that while employment is growing vigorously in the St. Cloud area, so is the number of older workers relative to the rest of the population. In short, to keep its job-creation engine humming, Central Minnesota needs more people and will need to be more welcoming to newcomers.
And newcomers of all kinds want to come to Central Minnesota. Immigrants from Mexico and Africa are filling jobs in many parts of the region, and their numbers have been growing. And people from elsewhere in the United States also are finding the region’s quality of life appealing. In 2013, Microbiologics hired Brian Beck to be its new vice president of molecular products. Beck came to St. Cloud from the Washington, D.C., area. Another émigré is Linh Nguyen, a Vietnam-born biomedical scientist who was lured to Microbiologics from the Charlottesville, Va., area. (Goskowicz himself was born in Wisconsin and spent much of his career in the Twin Cities.) Goskowicz acknowledged that finding the highly specialized people his company needs is “always a challenge.” On the other hand, “I’m very confident we’ll keep growing where we are, mainly because of that river of talent that flows right by our doorstep,” primarily from St. Cloud State, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Goskowicz also noted that his company’s headcount is more than 80 percent female—women represent another potential pool of skilled employees. All told, Goskowicz said, “I think we’re positioned very nicely to fill those positions.” Now the region needs to keep that river flowing—and tap sources that might still be underground.
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