NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. — If you were on a Minnesota lake last summer, you know why the Lund Boats plant in this northwestern Minnesota town needs workers.
There were boats on the lakes in 2020. Fishing boats. Ski boats. Wake boats. Runabouts. Pontoons. Boats, boats and more boats.
For this, the COVID pandemic is to thank. With restrictions on other kinds of entertainment that involved large gatherings both indoor and outdoor, folks were looking for something else to do with their summer.
Many took to the outdoors, which included the lakes. Even midweek, often a slow time in "normal" years, public accesses were busy and lake traffic was heavy.
"We shut down for roughly five weeks early in the pandemic," said Dirk Hyde, president of Lund Boats in New York Mills, a subsidiary of Illinois-based Brunswick Corporation. "We went back to building boats and as things started to turn around the sales of boats just took off. It really hasn't stopped."
Hyde said Brunswick — which includes locally well-known brands like Lund, Bayliner, Crestliner and SeaRay — expects a 20-30% increase in boat sales this year, even as the pandemic's grip on the nation hopefully lessens. The story is the same across the industry. The National Marine Manufacturers Association said consumer demand for new boats surged across the United States in 2020 and sales reached a 13-year high.
So, Hyde says, he needs workers. The Lund factory hopes to add about 60 employees. Jobs include assembly, welding, upholstery, painting, riveting. Pretty much everything.
"We're trying to ramp things up. Our dealer inventory is low, demand is high and we need people to build boats," Hyde said. "We expect the ramp-up to be a long-term one that will last multiple years. We don't expect things to slow down for quite some time."
It is one of the dichotomies of the pandemic economy. While business shutdowns and consumer caution have devastated some sectors, others have thrived. That includes the outdoor recreation world. A lack of indoor activities and the need for social distancing is good for the boat business.
Hyde says the jobs at the Lund plant are good ones. Most begin around $15 an hour, more if you have a particularly needed skill and experience, and offer a benefits package that includes health insurance, dental and vision coverage, profit sharing and a 401(k). There are incentive bonuses and the company offers "pool boats" employees can check out for use.
Many of the jobs are four days a week, 10 hours a day — meaning there are ample opportunities for three-day weekends.
New boat sales increased 12% nationwide in 2020 compared the prior year. The National Marine Manufacturers Association says more than 310,000 new boats were purchased last year, a figure the industry hasn't seen since before the Great Recession hit in 2008.
"For the first time in more than a decade we saw an increase in first-time boat buyers, who helped spur growth of versatile, smaller boats," association president Frank Hugelmeyer said in a news release, noting that those boats are often towed from an owner's home to the water.
That would include boats like the ones made by Lund in New York Mills. Most are between 16- and 21-feet long and used for fishing.
Hyde says he expects inventory to be tight all year.
"We had a phenomenal January. If you want a boat, you better go out and buy now," he said. "I think if you're looking to buy off a showroom floor, you can probably get something now. But if you're looking to special order and you wait, you're probably not going to get your boat until after the open-water season starts. All of our brands, all of our styles are low on inventory."
That's bad for anglers wanting a new boat. But it's good for people looking for a job.
"We're hiring now," Hyde said. "We're bringing people on now, to start right now."
Readers can reach Forum News Service columnist Mike McFeely at email@example.com or (701) 451-5655