If worker shortage comes, rural Minnesota will feel it first

The number of high-paying manufacturing jobs is growing faster in rural Minnesota than in the Twin Cities. But if the much-talked-about potential for a national shortage of skilled workers materializes, rural Minnesota will feel it first, both because of competition from the Twin Cities, Sioux Falls, Fargo and the North Dakota oil fields and because its residents are older and retiring sooner.

That’s the gist of the latest snapshot analysis of rural Minnesota done by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter. The center pulled together recent manufacturing job data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The resulting information graphic is one in a series of examinations the center is making of  a variety of issues in rural Minnesota.

Manufacturing jobs in outstate Minnesota are expected to increase by 9 percent between 2010 and 2020, the center’s report shows. That compares to 1 percent in the Twin Cities.

Why is that? One clue might lie in the geographic distribution of the expected jobs. Manufacturing jobs are expected to rise nearly 17 percent in northwestern Minnesota, where the oil fields of North Dakota are having spinoff effects.

Bob Kill, president and chief executive officer of Enterprise Minnesota, noted in general that manufacturing is more visible and more dominant in small towns. And perhaps those employers are more likely to face difficulty filling jobs and more easily see a need for more workers in the coming years.

But at any rate, the center’s report notes why people pay so much attention to manufacturing — the jobs pay much better than average.

Center for Rural Policy and Development report on manufacturing in Minnesota

In northeastern Minnesota, for example, the average manufacturing job paid $53,300 a year in 2012. That’s almost 40 percent above the average pay in that region. The mining and aerospace industries in Duluth are big factors. And in southeastern Minnesota, where the average manufacturing wage was almost $52,000, the Mayo Clinic and IBM are leading job generators.

There’s been a lot of debate about whether the nation is facing a skills gap between what employers need and what workers have. Here’s a stab Ground Level took at the issue last spring.

Marnie Werner, the center’s research manager, said rural Minnesota manufacturers do report difficulty filling some specific jobs, like skilled welders. And higher education institutions have been scrambling in recent years to tailor their offerings to some of those employer demands.

“The problem hasn’t hit a crisis point yet, but there is this issue of wages,” Werner said. “I don’t know if manufacturers aren’t offering more because they can’t or because they won’t.”

But if labor shortages develop, those rural Minnesota manufacturers could find themselves in a bind.

“If you’re in your 20s and not tied down, why waste your time working for $43,000 when you can go to the oil fields and make $85,000?” Werner asked.

Raising wages would be one response. But Werner and others have suggested that training programs, job fairs and marketing efforts are needed to make people, especially young people, aware that relatively high-paying jobs are available for the those with the interest and desire to stick around home.