Partners for Growth: A 20-year tidal wave of workforce shortages

By: Brad Meier
October 1, 2017

It’s the problem that’s been looking our state and country in the face for a couple decades, and now it’s here.

The retiring of the baby boomers, smaller populations and a strengthening economy have splashed this tidal wave of worker shortages on our businesses and economy. Demographers and human resource professionals will say that no one should be surprised. After all, they’ve been predicting this problem for a generation. What is surprising is that no real answers have materialized after all these years.

There are ways that businesses, governments and organizations are trying to deal with the worker shortage — efficiency, modernization, flexible schedules, flexible work spaces, working from home, apprenticeships and many more. Yet the economy locally and statewide is hiring at such a rapid rate that we are considered beyond full employment.

How are worker shortages being addressed in the Owatonna area?


Awareness and exposure to careers in Steele County for our high school aged kids is a key priority of the Chamber (and our members), the United Way, Workforce Development, Junior Achievement and the school districts. 25 percent of graduating seniors don’t have a plan after graduation. 40 percent of the 75 percent that go off to college don’t complete their college education.

Most Americans live within 18 miles of their parents, so talking to our local students is our best spot to focus. We find that most students don’t know what opportunities are available right here for possible careers. This is the focus of our efforts with new Workforce Coordinator Anisha Zak, Made in Owatonna Day tours and the new Steele County Works website and publication as our partners and the Chamber work long-term on this challenge.

Immigration is also seen as another important way we will be able to add workers to a shrinking workforce. Since the population growth numbers for our country are flat to declining, there are simply not enough people for the economic growth we have. There are federal policies that will dictate how many new immigrants enter the country. Locally, however, attracting new people to our community needs to be a priority. Rolling out the welcome mat to immigrants and others is and will be part of the workforce solution.

Housing and affordable housing continue to be part of the workforce challenge too. As we are out doing visits with employers through the Grow Minnesota! program (a business retention and expansion program of the Minnesota Chamber) the housing issue gets brought up in tandem with the workforce shortage issues they are facing. They are running into both a lack of houses available and a lack of apartment spaces, especially affordable or subsidized apartments. There are three new apartment projects in the community right now: one that is built and operating, two others that are starting to build. This will start to help, but more will be needed.

As our businesses locally and throughout Minnesota struggle to keep above water during this worker shortage challenge, we are seeing positive ideas happening. We are especially excited about the programming locally that includes many different organization and businesses to get students career-ready before they graduate high school. It’s a problem that’s not going away any time soon, but we are working on finding ways to address the constant workforce needs of both our future employees and our business community.

Brad Meier is president and CEO of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and a member of Owatonna Partners for Economic Development.

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