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Help Wanted: Local chambers of commerce respond to worker shortage

This week: Read the perspective of area chamber of commerce representatives regarding a local worker shortage. Next week: Read the perspective of area business owners regarding a local worker shortage. In April, Mann Lake LTD in Hackensack began ...

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This week: Read the perspective of area chamber of commerce representatives regarding a local worker shortage.

Next week: Read the perspective of area business owners regarding a local worker shortage.

In April, Mann Lake LTD in Hackensack began an aggressive effort to attract dozens of workers to its manufacturing plant, foreshadowing a growing worker shortage throughout the lakes area.

Though several chambers of commerce and businesses confirmed there are "seasons" in the spring and fall where area businesses generally have openings to fill, some of those chambers and businesses said applicant shortages continued throughout the entire summer of 2015 and may continue into winter.

This is evident by the "help wanted" signs visible at many local businesses, including restaurants, retail shops, manufacturers, resorts and automotive businesses.

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"We saw it in the spring. We saw a little of it in early summer and now again there is a big push," said Shawn Hansen, Nisswa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. "I think this is typical to see this type of cycle, but I think it's becoming a bigger gap than we have traditionally experienced. That's a bit of a concern for us. Because of the tourist community we represent, there is a lot of labor force needed. Most people associate that with the summer months, but if you think about it, the majority of our resorts, restaurants and retail are year-round businesses. That's where we're seeing some problems."

Some businesses in Nisswa experienced uncharacteristic, drawn out worker shortages. The Nisswa Chamber hosted a spring job fair to combat this issue, but finding applicants for even entry level positions seems to be more difficult than usual.

Continuing operation with less than optimal staff sizes requires business owners and managers to strategize.

"I think store owners and business owners are having to work a lot more hours to offset lack of staffing, which leads to seven days a week exhaustion, burnout," Hansen said. "But for them to turn around and close on a certain day to give themselves a break doesn't set a good precedence for the consumer, who is looking for that storefront to be open on a consistent basis."

Chamber directors also pointed out that local shortages are only part of a bigger picture.

"This is a phenomenon that is happening all over the country right now, not just in Pine River or Pequot or Backus," said Pine River Chamber of Commerce executive director John Wetrosky. "The national trends tell us that there are less people available for employment and/or they are not trained for specific jobs."

For communities with more seasonal employment and more shops that close down during winter months, the worker shortage may be having slightly less impact, though there are still issues.

"I think it is par for course this time of year," said Cindy Myogeto, Crosslake area director of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber. "We are such seasonal employers, with all the tourism, it works out perfectly because college kids and high school kids are home and so forth. It makes a good situation. The one problem we find is that those employees seem to be leaving earlier and earlier every year. The school sports are starting earlier, so the students aren't able to work those last weeks in August. The college students are gone, and our season runs through Labor Day. There is a definite shortfall of kids at the end of the season."

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Some potential causes that have resounded with several area chambers of commerce have been housing shortages and low wages, which may make it difficult to draw new workers into the area.

An affordable housing shortage was one struggle identified by Vicki Dufner, Mann Lake human resources manager. Attracting year-long workers is difficult if entry level pay isn't enough to pay for housing. That rang true with other communities as well.

"We simply don't have housing available for the year-round, lower wage positions," Myogeto said. "Not just because they are lower wages, but they might not be 40 hours a week either with no benefits. ... A lot of our housing is in Breezy Point. That can be too far to drive for the jobs."

"One of the problems I think we have is the potential to bring in, especially in the tourism businesses, we could probably bring in additional workers for seasonal jobs," Hansen said. "But we have a housing shortage. We don't have places for people to live in these positions. If we don't fix that part of it, we can't entice people to come from University of Wisconsin-Stout, which has a hospitality program, where we could probably draw a lot of people for work. If you think of it, maybe they go out to Colorado to work the winter season and maybe come here for six months to work. There's no housing for them. I think a housing shortage has something to do with it."

Of course, wages are also an important factor, especially when potential employees have so many jobs to choose from.

"This increased competition for workers is giving potential employees many more options," Wetrosky said. "In many cases, they do not have to settle for low wage/benefit jobs as they had to in the past. In other words, in an employee's eyes, this is a seller's market. Employers are caught because they must show a positive bottom line and wages are the bulk of their expenses. I think the wage/benefit/flexible hours base will go up as a result of this shortage of workers. Once those things increase to a point where they get the attention of a potential employee, I think the employees will be there. A good, steady, productive employee should and must/will be compensated."

Higher pay though can be a double-edged sword.

"I think in the hospitality industry, some of the wage increases will be difficult for employers to absorb," Hansen said. "So they will try to do more with less staffing. I think in general, these people working in these jobs need a living wage. It's a fine balance in there for minimum wage."

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Many entry level positions have traditionally been filled by younger, sometimes high school age workers. That poses its own issues.

Myogeto said businesses in Crosslake have reported over recent summers that younger employees have been leaving their jobs earlier and earlier for school and athletic-related reasons. Some business owners have reported less enthusiasm, reliability and responsibility among their younger workers. For entry level positions, this can mean regular turnover.

Mary Gottsch, director of Bridges Workplace Connection, works with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber to connect young workers with employers within a 23 community area known as the Central Minnesota Carl Perkins Consortium. The consortium includes the Pine River-Backus, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd school districts and the area in between.

Gottsch said there appears to be fewer teens with summer jobs than there have traditionally been. She especially noticed this when communicating with businesses in Pine River during the summer. She also said there are several common issues among the younger workforce of today. Specifically, some have additional responsibilities, such as babysitting siblings. Others feel overwhelmed or intimidated when it comes to finding employment. This has been especially apparent while connecting students to job shadowing opportunities.

"Kids would want to job shadow a hospital or police officer, but high school students would get into the parking lot and think, 'I'm not going in there,'" Gottsch said. "They were afraid. Then we realized job shadows needed to be a group of kids."

To help students get over job searching jitters, Gottsch and the Bridges Workplace Connection have been working to make job searches less intimidating and more rewarding for students.

"We have a new youth job portal that will offer entry level jobs," Gottsch said. "It will be young adult friendly where there are also videos of community members that kids know, like principals or police and fire chiefs ..."

One of the first videos on the portal is of Pequot Lakes High School principal Chip Rankin.

Gottsch said the portal helps students to find jobs they might like by appealing to their interests, rather than listing technical job titles that might seem more intimidating.

"We have to change the way we offer jobs to the young," Gottsch said. "We are doing something about it in our 23 area communities, and we hope we can help to be part of the solution for people 20 or under."

Gottsch hops that her portal can grow the local work force in communities where there just aren't enough applicants.

The Bridges Workforce Connection worker's portal can be found at chamber.bridgesconnection.org/jobs.

Related Topics: HOUSING
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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