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Rosenmeier Forum: Panelists tackle issues of lakes area unemployment

Members of the panel Sheila Skogen (left), Sue Hilgart, Kara Griffin and Mike Bjerkness, along with forum host and moderator Dan Hegstad, discuss the issue of unemployment in Crow Wing County. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The issue of unemployment took center stage at Central Lakes College for the Gordon Rosenmeier Forum Wednesday evening—though, panelists agreed, the topic touches upon problems and solutions that extend far beyond a time punch card.

The forum, titled "Who is unemployed and why?," tackled the subjects of invigorating job growth, wage increases and family well-being in Crow Wing County and the Brainerd lakes area.

At multiple points, panelists noted issues surrounding employment are much larger than simply finding a way to connect a viable workforce with understaffed employers—it's a problem interlinked with problems of transportation, housing costs, food insecurity, child care, welfare, health care and other external factors.

With that in mind, the only way to address the issue of unemployment is to address the underlying issues that contribute to it, said Dan Hegstad, the host and moderator for the forum.

"The solution to what I call this employment issue is big and it's complicated," Hegstad said at the opening of the discussion. "You can't solve this unemployment issue until we address health care, until we address immigration, until we get into housing and day care. As I see it, in this employment issue, it's really more a symptom of these larger issues."

The forum's panelists included Sue Hilgart, program manager for Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment; Kara Griffin, programs manager for Crow Wing County Community Services; Sheila Skogen, operations manager for Crow Wing County Community Services and Mike Bjerkness, workforce director for the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp.

According to U.S. Census data, the population of Crow Wing County in 2015 was a little more than 63,000 people.

• The average household income was $50,800. Statewide was $63,000.

• The percentage of the population below the poverty line was 10.5 percent. Statewide was 10.8 percent.

• In terms of its aging population, Crow Wing County has 21.7 percent of its population older than age 65. Statewide, the average is 15.2 percent older than 65.

• As of mid-2017, in the 20- to 24-years-old demographic (or, traditionally the ages of entry-level workers), 42.3 percent of men are not in the labor force, compared to 16.4 percent of women. Hilgart noted all other age groups are seeing relative parity between the sexes.

• If the youngest group and oldest groups—ages 16-19 and older than 65—were subtracted because of educational or retirement status, there would still be 8,052 eligible workers not participating in the labor force in Crow Wing County.

Still, in Crow Wing County, unemployment is lower than years past—notably, the city of Brainerd is no longer the most unemployed city of its size statewide, Hilgart emphasized—but the issue of retention in terms of full employment or long-term employment remains a lingering problem.

Hilgart noted a single person needs a wage of about $21 per hour to meet all expected living costs sufficiently, while for a family to four it requires at least one earner to make close to $30 per hour or more than $60,000 per year. For Region Five —Todd, Morrison, Crow Wing, Cass and Wadena counties—the median wage is $15.70 per hour.

In terms of crime, 1,215 people, or 2 percent of the Crow Wing County's population, have a felony-level conviction on their record, which can pose as a serious obstacle to finding sustainable employment. Most prominently, 494 of these people have drug-related charges.

Hilgart noted transportation, in relation to purchasing a vehicle and its upkeep, as well as car insurance costs, can limit employment opportunities. Median housing value is $181,000. Median gross rent for the county is $758 per month. In total, Crow Wing County ranks 57th among counties in the state in transportation costs, accounting for 30 percent of an average family income.

A serious lack of available housing poses as a significant hurdle for businesses to overcome in drawing workers into the area, Hilgart said.

"It's so much more complicated than just having the businesses," she said. "There's no available housing in Brainerd—like single vacancy rate for residential properties. The housing stock on the market is very, very small."

Bjerkness said Crow Wing County has a significant concentration of small, low-staffed businesses—54 percent of employers only have one to four employees, while 88.4 percent of employers have 19 or fewer on the payroll. Health care and social assistance are the primary areas of job growth, he added, accounting for more than 5,900 positions. However, these fields typically require a high level of specialization and accreditation.

Local schools—which perform well and sport a sterling reputation—are institutions to build upon and use as a magnet for potential employees looking to plant roots, Bjerkness added.

"I'm so happy I can tell them that I have elementary schools that are Blue Ribbon accredited at the national level," Bjerkness said. "It is amazing. When we look at that, it's been a huge part of recruitment for the Brainerd lakes area."

Child care—noted by panelists as a field that pays low wages, yet requires high expenditure from its customers—factors as the most significant cause of unemployment for eligible and motivated potential workers in the county. Panelists noted day care for a typical family costs about $460 per month, though this represents a conservative estimate.