MinnEcon indicator: Library computer use morphs in a tough economy

Unemployment in Wadena County, Minn., typically runs in cycles — up in cold months down in warm. But this recession is altering a lot of patterns and Wadena’s jobless rate isn’t falling the way it has in the past, hitting 13.6 percent in March, the highest in two decades

Wadena, in north central Minnesota, caught our interest after Laura Spilman shared a different look at unemployment from her vantage point — she’s a library assistant at the Wadena city library where job searching, she says, has trumped chatting and games on the library’s free computers.

Spilman, part of MPR’s Public Insight Network, writes:

It used to be that our 7 public internet computers stood fairly open during the school day, then, we would be overrun with school kids coming in to play the computers games and do the chatting stuff that kids like to do. Now, and especially since last Sept. or so, the computers are usually almost all in use from the time we open until we close. The increase is in the number of adults coming in to use them.

Now, we do not make a habit of prying into what people are using the computers for, but one cannot help but notice when a patron asks for assistance. We have many people coming in to do their weekly unemployment as well as apply for jobs, work on resumes etc. I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t get at least one patron asking for help in navigating the not so user friendly job service site, because they have little to no computer experience.

We had someone ask at the desk just the other day if we were hiring at the moment and of course we are not. Her rather frustrated reply was, “Geez,you know, not even Wal-Mart is hiring around here.” That kind of sums up the situation around here.

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Click on the chart for a view of Wadena County’s unemployment

Retailing and manufacturing drive the region’s workforce. Among the largest private employers: Wadena-based outdoor furniture maker Homecrest Industries.

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Labor Department reported the county’s jobless rate fell to 11 percent in April. But that’s not the kind of spring boost the county’s come to expect.

“It appears the pattern of dropping in the spring has resumed albeit at a much higher level of unemployment for April than in the three previous years,” says Paul Sailer, the county’s human services director.

The county, he adds, has also seen “an upward trend” in demands for food support, medical assistance, child support and unemployment since January.

Spilman worries the library will be viewed as expendable despite the rising need. That’s could make life difficult for the people who depend on the library. It could also make life challenging for her.

“My husband is currently laid off because of the downturn in the house market. So, coupled with that and my feeling that cuts to my position could happen, we have really tightened the belt a lot (not that we were extravagant spenders to begin with).


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We’re on the lookout for unusual or offbeat Minnesota economic trends. What are you seeing on the economy that’s a little different that’s telling you things are improving or worsening?

Click here, shoot us a note and tell us what you’re seeing, then type “MinnEcon Indicator” in the headline box and send it.

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