AP NEWS

Neal St. Anthony: Minnesota manufacturers worry most about long-term worker shortages

December 14, 2018
Neal St. Anthony

MINNEAPOLIS — Filling vacant jobs in a growing economy has been out of the headlines for a few weeks.

Swooning financial markets of late are signaling economic slowdown to recession for 2019, thanks in part to U.S.-China trade war jitters that have plowed into the farm economy and which could threaten manufacturing and other sectors.

The financial markets usually signal economic moves, sometimes months before they hit Main Street.

Meanwhile, the hot topic among worker-hungry Minnesota manufacturers, retailers and others is hiring qualified and trainable employees.

Minnesota employers added 3,400 jobs to a record workforce of nearly 3 million people in October, wages are rising modestly and the unemployment rate is 2.8 percent; basically full employment. Even if we do run into a job-reducing recession next year, the long-term workforce trends are challenging for Minnesota employers and threaten to slow the growth of state’s economy.

“As (baby) boomers retire the number of unfilled jobs is Minnesota expected to explode from 60,000 to as much as 280,000, in just five years,” said the summary to a recent quarterly publication of the Center of the American Experiment titled “The Vanishing Minnesota Worker.”

Minnesota’s manufacturers, who tend to pay among the highest hourly wages, have been particularly starved for workers.

Those employers are pitching high school kids on jobs that involve advanced training, including paid college courses, as an alternative to launching into college, which can be expensive and debt incurring, without a plan.

College graduates make a lot more money as a whole over their careers than high school graduates. However, only 59 percent of those who begin college at a Minnesota public, four-year college finish a degree within six years, according to a 2017 study on “in-demand careers” in Minnesota done in collaboration with the Center of the American Experiment by Amanda Griffith, an economist at Wake Forest University who studies higher education.

Good-paying jobs in computer-based factory work, millwrights and health care are going unfilled. These positions in the Twin Cities pay median wages of $20 to $30 an hour, plus benefits. They also require certification or two-year degrees.

Minnesota manufacturers, two-year colleges and trade schools, often working through collaborations formed in recent years by local chambers of commerce, are attracting more interested high school kids who can come to work at a $12 to $15 an hour job upon graduation. And they “learn while they earn” through company-paid certifications and scholarships to schools such as Dunwoody or a community college.

“It’s eye-opening for high school kids when we bring them in and show them really cool stuff in manufacturing,” said Tom Wynn, retired CEO of Peerless Chain of Winona, who works on workforce development programs with employers and the Winona Chamber of Commerce.

The American Experiment, collaborating with the Manufacturing Institute, recently sponsored a forum on attracting and developing talent.

Sean Mullan, a regional 3M manager, said the industrial manufacturer increasingly is partnering with local two-year colleges to train plant technicians and maintenance workers to fill jobs that often take months to fill. And 3M has contributed about $125,000 through 45 scholarships in rural Minnesota.

In Hutchinson, an industrial hub west of the Twin Cities, more than 40 businesses are working with the public high school on Tiger Path Academies, a program that helps students find career options, including college, that fit their aptitude and interests. And the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last year launched MN Job Match to help small employers connect with job seekers based on skills and interest.

More than two-thirds of Minnesota jobs don’t require a college degree. However, many ambitious IT support workers, assemblers, welders and CNC manufacturing employees also can earn two- or four-year degrees through employer support.

Keith Viggers, a vice president of Graco, which operates plants in Minneapolis and Anoka County, said premium pay, a great workplace and educational assistance are helping the global manufacturer grow.

It’s not easy. Manufacturers still must shake the stigma of being backbreaking, gritty places to work.

Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, said 90 percent of his organization’s 4,000 members “feel things are good and going to improve. And 73 percent are worried about attracting and retaining workers.

“It’s great to have to expand a plant,” Carrick said. “But where do we find new people, they ask.”

High school seems a good place to start. Last year, I toured Graco’s flagship Minneapolis plant with interested high school students. A third of the office and plant workers are people of color.

Kayla Pollard, one of the students, enjoyed Graco’s clean, high-tech factory. She performed a few hands-on projects and listened to workers in their 20s and 30s explain how products are designed, manufactured and assembled for carmakers and food processors.

“This kind of speaks to me,” Pollard said. “It’s hands-on. The design process is very interesting.”

The average annual wage for full-time manufacturing jobs in Minnesota is around $65,000, much higher than the all-industry average. There are skilled workers on the shop floor at Graco who make $70,000, plus benefits.

Manufacturing drives Minnesota economic output, totaling nearly $50 billion. We need more trained workers for Minnesota to keep prospering.