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Wanted: Workers: City, business leaders come together to fill jobs, address challenges

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There are plenty of jobs open in Perham, and business and community leaders are coming together to try and fill them.

In a pioneering effort to define and address local employment concerns, staff from the city and chamber of commerce met last Thursday with economic development experts and representatives from KLN, Arvig, Kitmasters, Perham Health and a handful of other major employers in town.

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The challenge for the group is  twofold: first, to find a way to attract more workers to Perham; and second, to be able to accommodate those workers once they’re here.

And that’s not as simple as it may seem.

Reps for most of the major employers at the meeting said they’re looking to fill open positions right now, most notably in manufacturing and skilled labor. All of them have been having trouble finding qualified applicants.

Attempts to advertise the openings and reach out to schools and temp agencies across the region have brought some results, but not enough. Many businesses have begun offering incentives in hopes of enticing people into Perham, such as sign-on bonuses, down payment assistance on their homes and even free temporary housing for new hires.

But even those extra efforts aren’t producing the results that business owners would like to see.

Those at the meeting said the problem is not unique to Perham; they’re hearing the same laments from companies all over the region, state, Midwest and beyond. But since Perham is a rural community that happens to have a lot of industry, and those industries are continuing to grow, the quest to find good workers feels more urgent here.

“It’s a pretty big problem for our community,” said Darrin Swanson, president and CEO of Kit Masters, at last week’s meeting. “Many of the manufacturers, big or small, are having trouble.”

Some possible solutions to this were talked about at the meeting. For example, it was suggested that billboards be put up in places like the Twin Cities in an effort to appeal to city slickers looking for a change of pace. Someone else posed the idea of making jobs more ‘retirement-friendly’ by restructuring them into part-time or seasonal positions. Yet another idea was to get the city involved in a marketing campaign, to get the word out about employment opportunities in Perham.

“There isn’t one solution,” said Terry Stallman, Otter Tail Power’s economic development consultant and a former economic development director for Perham. “You’re going to have to do a bunch of stuff. You have to approach it with a lot of solutions and a lot of ideas.”

Then there’s the problem of what to do with the workers – and their families – once they’re here.

Perham has had a shortage of affordable housing and rental housing for a number of years, a situation that has been improving but still needs attention. There’s also a shortage of affordable daycare facilities in town, especially those offering night and weekend services, which would appeal to shift workers.

These challenges have already led a number of people who work in Perham to live outside of town. It was brought up in the discussion last week that Perham, with its population of roughly 3,000, has an estimated 3,400 jobs – 400 more jobs than the town has people.

Not all of these commuters would choose to live in Perham if they could, but some don’t relocate simply because they can’t – they can’t afford it, or they can’t find a daycare facility for their young children.

In a follow-up interview, City Manager Kelcey Klemm said discussions about affordable housing have been ongoing for the last several years, and will continue into the foreseeable future.

“You can tell we’ve made progress in the last few years,” he said. “Apartments have been built and filled, so demand is still there. Apartments have been put up and there are more going up.”

There’s talk of another apartment building going up by the new hospital, Klemm said, and there are set plans for a new townhome development in Perham. Those would both add needed affordable housing units to town – a step in the right direction. Those would likely fill up as fast as the others, however, and there would still be a need for more.

According to one business owner at the meeting last week, there are 475 rental units in Perham; of those, just three are currently open.

Several people at the meeting offered to be on a committee that will focus on solving these problems, as quickly and effectively as possible. At press time, that committee was scheduled to meet again this week.

“Maybe we’re at a refocusing point to solve this problem,” said Swanson. “It’s time to find out, what can the community do? What can the city do?”

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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