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WIN-WIN: Domanic Richardson (left) is just one of the beneficiaries of a new partnership between Central Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge and Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity. Pictured with Domanic are Sam Anderson of Central Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge and Kevin Pelkey of Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity.

Workforce Wonders

With more job openings than workers to fill them, creativity and collaboration can keep Central Minnesota’s labor force strong.

By Laura Billings Coleman | Photography by John Linn

Rising wages, rebounding household incomes, and the resurgence of the once endangered signing bonus are positive signs Minnesota has long since recovered from the worst of the recession when there were more than 12 job seekers for every available opening.

But for business owners who still need proof the tide has turned, try hanging out a Help Wanted sign. “That’s when employers suddenly realize there’s no line outside the door anymore,” said regional analyst Luke Greiner, who studies trends in Central and Southwest Minnesota for the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Over the last two years, he’s been on the receiving end of increasingly anxious calls from employers in the region, many wondering why they’re not getting the anticipated response to job openings. “I have to tell them it’s not their fault, it’s not anything their HR department is doing wrong, and it’s not because anyone is bad-mouthing their companies. It’s just that a lot of the great applicants that might have been waiting in line five or six years ago are already working. That’s why no one’s applying.”

Not only has the economy rebounded, the first wave of Baby Boomers has begun retiring at such a rate—10,000 every day across the country, according the Social Security administration—that there aren’t enough Gen X and Millennial workers to replace them in the pipeline. It’s a scenario Minnesota policy makers have been seeing on the horizon for nearly two decades. As state demographer Susan Brower points out, the recession “was such an earth-shattering event for so many people that thinking about a labor shortage seemed absurd.” Preparing for the day when available jobs outnumber available workers seemed “like something so far off in the future,” she said. “But the fact is, it’s happening now.”

The pace of retirements has been accelerated by the fact that Baby Boomers who put off their retirement plans when their 401(k) balances plummeted during the recession are retiring now that those retirement accounts have bounced back. These “deferred retirees” are speeding the shrinkage at the top end of the workforce.

If current trends continue, mid-2018 will mark the turning point where there will be more jobs in the state than people looking for them—a situation that’s already happening in some sectors, including healthcare, manufacturing and information-technology. The emerging labor force shortage, combined with a recent change in seasonal immigrant visas, created a serious crunch in the Brainerd Lakes area this summer, forcing big resorts to purchase billboards and boost their ads on Facebook to fill seasonal positions. Even the region’s largest employer, CentraCare, with its 10,000 employees, started a youth employment summer camp for 14- to 17-year-olds, aimed at growing a local workforce that can fill some of the health system’s estimated 800 current job openings.

Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development, said that these types of programs are only the start of the outside-the-box recruiting efforts likely to emerge as employers get creative about coping with a predicted shortage of 100,000 workers by 2020—a dip that could last for two decades, according to estimates by Greater MSP, the Minneapolis and St. Paul regional development partnership. “I haven’t talked to a single business owner right now in any sector that isn’t telling me they would be expanding if they could just find the right folks for the jobs,” Hickman said. “We’re in this workforce pinch for at least another decade, which is why I’m convinced that companies that figure out early how to fill the gaps are going to thrive earlier and longer during this dip in population.”

Here are three examples of organizations, all of which have received funding from the Initiative Foundation, whose innovative approaches to workforce development are already paying big dividends.

This demographic shift isn’t all bad news—for many workers, it could be just the break they’ve been waiting for.

“We’re seeing rising turnover rates in every age group, which is a reflection of people feeling confident and comfortable about changing jobs, earning more and moving upward,” said Greiner, who adds that “people who might have been passed over when the labor market was tighter are also going to be getting the second look they deserve.”

That’s especially true for people with disabilities—a population that’s been challenged by unemployment rates of 10.5 percent, more than double that of workers who aren’t disabled.

“Unfortunately, people with disabilities are often the last hired, but they have so much potential,” said Carol Anderson, executive director for Community Development Morrison County and chair of the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (CEP), 

which has been helping to move workers with disabilities off state and federal benefits programs and back into employment through a voluntary Social Security program called “Ticket to Work.”

“It is CEP’s underlying philosophy that, in order to be successful, people need to work. It’s just the key to everything,” said Dan Wenner, executive director of Rural Minnesota CEP, who points out that many of the more than 185,000 Minnesotans who receive disability benefits due to an accident, injury, or qualifying medical or mental health diagnosis have the skills and motivation to earn more through employment. Yet the risk of losing benefits—or having to re-qualify if a job doesn’t work out—can be a powerful disincentive to pursuing even part-time employment.

Ticket to Work offers a simple fix, making it possible for Minnesota’s current 1,028 current “ticket holders” to keep their benefits as they secure first jobs or go back to work, funding that eventually phases out as they make a successful transition toward financial independence. If the placement doesn’t pan out, ticket holders don’t have to wait for disability benefits to resume, ensuring that their basic financial needs are covered. The program also accounts for the fact that workers with disabilities may need to come and go from the workforce, depending on medical treatments, injuries, or other issues.

“It really lowers the risk of going back to work and gives people more confidence about taking the leap,” according to Sue Hilgart, program manager at the Brainerd WorkForce Center who said the self-selecting program, funded in part by a community grant from the Initiative Foundation, has attracted some highly motivated individuals. For instance, one recent ticket holder who was disabled due to an organ transplant was able retrain for a new career during recovery, relying on free support from the Ticket to Work employment network to plan ahead for the accommodations necessary to rejoin the workforce. Based on recent results, Wenner estimates that three in four Ticket to Work participants will make a successful transition to work, elevating their standard of living far beyond what they had been receiving in standard benefits (roughly $735 a month for those who qualify for Supplemental Security Insurance, or about $1,200 a month for individuals who receive Social Security Disability Insurance). In fact, a recent DEED report focused on workforce supports for people with visual impairments found that those who successfully closed their cases with the State Services for the Blind earned an average full-time rate of $20 or more.

“We’re talking about a population that wants to work, that wants to contribute, but maybe they don’t have the stamina to work fulltime, or the capacity to do every task that you want to check on your to-do list,” said Hilgart, who makes a point of urging local employers to consider ways they could restructure their next job posting with flexible hours and other accommodations that could attract one of the 10 ticket holders she’s currently working with in Brainerd. “If you can find a way to make the work more accessible, it’s a great way to tap the potential we have right in front of us.”

Job openings in the construction trades are as high as they’ve been in a decade. There’s also a workforce shortage that’s pushing up construction costs, prolonging projects and contributing to a statewide housing shortage.

“We work with so many contractors out there who just can’t keep up with the demand, and we started wondering if there was more we to jump in and learn,” said Kevin Pelkey, executive director for Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity. Impressed by the strong work ethic among the community service volunteers he sees from Central Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, a long-term treatment facility, Pelkey and Habitat for Humanity staff have been building a new partnership to help put more graduates on a path to full employment. “These guys have been great to work with, and they come ready to learn,” he said. “Our biggest problem has been just trying to keep up with them.”

But getting hired again after a history of substance abuse requires extra support. “If you’ve been living with an addiction for any length of time, it’s likely that you’ll have an arrest or felony on your record that can be hard to overcome,” said center director Sam Anderson. In fact, having a criminal record can cut a job candidate’s chances of getting called back by more than half, according to research from the National Institute of Justice. The challenge of re-establishing credit, reliable transportation, a driver’s license and other job application requirements can be additional roadblocks to re-employment—and to recovery.

This summer, the two nonprofits launched a 90-day transitional employment partnership that allows promising new graduates of the year-long treatment program to work for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, earning an income from the donations-based home improvement center while getting established in sober housing. But even before the program’s first recruit, Domanic Richardson, completed the program in late September, he’d already landed a job with a local construction firm. The glowing reference from Habitat for Humanity didn’t hurt.

“It doesn’t seem like my past will be a problem,” said Richardson, 33, who worried that the year he spent at Adult & Teen Challenge could be a red flag to potential employers. Instead, he said, being transparent about his past troubles may have helped. “I’ve heard that some companies, if they hear you’re a graduate of a longterm program, they like hiring you because they know you’ve been committed to recovering, and that you’re ready to turn your life around.”

With more graduates now in the pipeline to complete the 90-day partnership, Pelkey believes the program is a way that nonprofits can give back to the construction trades that donate their time and labor, while giving a second chance to good workers who are ready to rebuild their lives. “This program can give these guys some confidence, some cash, and a connection to a good paying job, so it’s already working the way we want it to,” he said.

Though some corners of the state may struggle to make economic gains in the decade ahead, the St. Cloud area is poised for growth thanks in large part to an influx of immigrants. While immigrants and refugees from East Africa have been an economic driver in the region for more than decade, finding ways to fast-track more recent arrivals into the workforce was the focus of CareerONE Coleman, a new on-the-job training pilot attracting attention from manufacturing firms and other employers around the region.

The impetus for the program was an urgent call to action last spring, as educators from District 742 began looking for ways to engage more than a dozen students from East Africa who were about to “age out” of the school system, well short of the graduation requirements needed to earn their high school diplomas. “We have a lot of immigrants and refugees coming into our community in their late teens and they simply don’t have enough years left to graduate before they turn 21, and they don’t always have the language skills to do that high school level work,” explained Laurie Leitch, the district’s Adult High School Diploma Coordinator. “These students were so disappointed to see their educations come to an end, at the same time, they really wanted the opportunity to work and develop the right skills for employment.”

Key partners including Tammy Biery, executive director of Career Solutions (formerly Stearns-Benton Employment & Training Council) and Jama Alimad, founder of the Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, quickly flew into action, securing the Coleman Co. plant in Sauk Rapids as the classroom partner for an on-site adult education and apprenticeship program. Funding was also provided by the Otto Bremer Trust and the Initiative Foundation. The five-week program they designed made it possible for 14 young men and women to split their time between on-the-job training with Coleman’s own staff, while making progress toward their diplomas in a classroom near the shop floor. Adult educator Mandi Schneider even made her literacy lesson plans using the Coleman company’s own employee handbooks and other on-site materials, giving students a real-life connection to relevant job skills.

“I was blown away by how self-motivated these students were,” said Schneider, noting that four students jumped up more than two grade levels in math, while three more made enough progress to enroll in the Adult Basic Education diploma and credit recovery programs this fall. “They were just laser-focused on making the most of this opportunity.”

Though the pilot program was pulled together in just six weeks, the positive results have attracted attention from other employers around the region interested in building stronger connections with St. Cloud’s immigrant community. “All of the partners in the program said the same thin —the caliber of these students, their amazing resilience and interest in learning was amazing,” said Leitch. “At the start, Coleman told us if they could get three or four quality workers out of the program, they’d be thrilled.” In fact, nine of the CareerOne-Coleman trainees have become eligible to join the
company’s temporary hiring pool.

“I do believe apprenticeships can help to fill the gap in less time and with less money,” said Alimad. “We have so many companies that need the workforce, and strong young people who need the work, that we just need to make the connection. That’s going to be the key to everything.”

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