In central Minnesota, an ancient skill in short supply

MinnEcon note: Dave Peters directs MPR’s Ground Level project, a cool local journalism effort. He gave us a heads-up on a dispatch from Nancy Leasman, a Ground Level blogger in Todd County.

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Nancy found a neat story about a Todd County business — a barrel maker that can’t find the workers it needs to grow.

It’s a small reminder that while we wring our hands about high tech jobs and training, there are still jobs out there that rely on ancient skills and apprentice workers.

Here’s her report.

Earlier this week, I had a lovely conversation with this area’s only coopers. Yes, Todd County has a barrel making business: Black Swan Cooperage, just north of Clotho, next to the Berkness Sawmill. Heidi and Russ Karasch sat down with me and I learned about the fascinating history and present day job of barrel making.

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I’ll be writing about the cooperage for print publications but one of the Karaschs’ comments really hit me as I look into the future of this county. They said that they can’t find employees here in Todd County.

Historically, becoming a cooper required a seven year apprenticeship. Apprentices received a small amount of pay but since they started young, often around 14 (which Heidi did as she learned the trade from her father), by the time they were ready to start a family, they had a living wage.

Black Swan Cooperage pays a living wage; starting pay is $10 / hour. With modern day mechanization of parts of the process, it takes about two years to become a good cooper. The cooperage invests in its employees by teaching the necessary skills.

According to a recent MPR essay, our society has so emphasized education and technology that the number of skilled artisans is at an all time low. The essayist suggested a return to valuing the skills of hand work. But, are young people willing to take on the physical labor that goes with hand work?

The Karasches recently hired six new employees. Only one showed up on the first day of work. They don’t know why the others didn’t arrive for work. They tried to hire non-English speaking workers but found the communication barrier a stumbling block in crafting barrels.

This is one small example but what would this mean if it becomes a trend? What happens to an aging county if the work force is unwilling or unavailable to support the local economy?

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