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Hiring woes not just a problem in Perham

Jobs have been a hot topic in Perham lately.

With more than 200 manufacturing jobs currently open in town, plus additional openings in retail and other sectors, employers have been putting their heads together to figure out how to attract quality workers.

In July, city and business leaders formed a first-ever jobs committee to address the local employment gap.

So far, solutions the committee has initiated include increased marketing and outreach efforts to reach more potential employees, additional networking between businesses, and the creation of a new website that, once launched, will promote job openings in Perham.

The committee is also taking a close look at housing, and is making efforts to bring more affordable housing to town so that once workers are here, they’ll have a place to live.

“You can’t talk about jobs unless you talk about housing,” said Fred Sailer, a recruiter at KLN Family Brands and the chairperson of the jobs committee. “The housing issue is so intertwined with the labor issue.”

Sailer said Perham has added 1,100 jobs in the past 10 years, and keeping up with that kind of growth would be a major challenge for any small town. But, to him, it’s a good one.

“It’s human nature that we think of this as a problem,” he said, “but the greater problem would be boarding up doors, and thankfully that isn’t the case. I hope the community continues to grow and add jobs and housing in the future… And hopefully this will be a challenge for us for years to come.”

In all, Perham is home to about 1,750 industrial-type jobs, according to Chuck Johnson of the Economic Development Authority. That’s more than half the town’s population (3,010 according to the 2012 Census).

The hiring challenges aren’t unique to Perham. At the 2013 Minnesota Manufacturer’s Summit, held in Bloomington, Minn. on Oct. 23, manufacturers across the state said finding qualified workers is one of their biggest concerns.

“As much as we have tremendous pride in Minnesota ... we cannot be complacent,” said Scott Peterson, Schwan Food Co. executive vice president, telling 175 manufacturing officials at the summit that they can take actions to help find workers.

Peterson said half of Minnesota youths do not realize that better education can improve their employment opportunities. He and others said manufacturers must begin telling high school students that they do not need a four-year degree to land a good career.

The message spread at the summit was that youths need to understand that some receiving four-year degrees may not find good jobs, while those trained as welders, machinists and in other trade positions probably will land good jobs.

In Perham, one way that message is being spread is through a new job fair at the high school. The school hosted a job fair for the first time last year, and Sailer said plans are already in the works for the next one, coming up on Dec. 11.

The job fair, greatly expanded in its second year, will feature booths and information by local businesses in addition to tech schools and colleges. Kids from nearby school districts will be bussed in for the event, and there will also be a time for adults to visit the fair and apply for open jobs.

One of the added challenges faced by rural areas like Perham is the recruitment of young people. Rural manufacturers at the summit said high school graduates often leave their hometowns to live in places like the Twin Cities or North Dakota’s Oil Patch, where pay can be higher.

But as Sailer pointed out, not all high school graduates move away from home, and some of those who do end up moving back after a few years, to raise their families and to experience a different quality of life. The jobs committee is trying to reach those populations with targeted marketing in the Twin Cities and Oil Patch areas, to draw those people back in, and to attract new people who may be ready for a lifestyle change.

That brings the problem back to housing. Once the workers are here, where do they live?

Sailer said the jobs committee is working with state agencies liked DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) to look at housing and financial assistance programs that could help bring more affordable housing to town. In the meantime, some individual businesses have bought or are considering buying homes to convert into apartments for their workers.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” Sailer said.

Another solution to employment problems involves

keeping employees instead of hiring replacements.

“We want to promote from within,” Hutchinson Manufacturing President Tom Daggett said at the summit.

He and others said they work to retain workers.

“We have a lot of respect and a lot of involvement with our workforce,” Daggett said. “We want to create a career path for individuals; we don’t just want to create jobs.”

Sailer said KLN and other companies in Perham follow that same philosophy, offering on-the-job training and advancement opportunities for their employees.

Marie Nitke

Don Davis Forum News Service