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The future of Greater Minnesota’s economy is already here — and it looks a lot like Montevideo

MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Montevideo, population 5,383, is the county seat of Chippewa County in southwestern Minnesota.

In the entryway of Chandler Industries, just north of downtown Montevideo, a framed newspaper clipping from the local newspaper, the Montevideo American-News, hangs on the wall. Yellowed by the years, it announces the company’s 1969 expansion in this southwest Minnesota town of 5,300.

Over the half-century since, Chandler has been a stable employer, with nearly 100 people working at its plant here, one of several facilities the company operates in Minnesota (along with another in Mexico) that manufacture stainless-steel machine parts for the energy, aerospace and medical industries.

But these days, Chandler — like businesses across Greater Minnesota — has had to operate short-staffed at times. When the company recently went looking for an operations manager, it cast its net near and far, advertising in local newspapers, on Craigslist, on the job-search website Indeed. It still took six months to fill the position.

It’s become a common lament for employers in this part of the state, one that doesn’t just affect manufacturers. In Appleton, 25 miles up the road from Montevideo on U.S. Route 59, the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, a nonprofit that works with cities and counties on development projects, just recently hired someone for an open position. Until then, the agency had at least one open position for four years.

In fact, across this region, employers are dealing with a troubling trend: As Minnesota’s rural economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, many busineess and nonprofits are primed for growth – but are operating short-staffed or holding back on expansion due to concerns over finding enough workers.

Luke Greiner

Luke Greiner

“People in both rural areas and the Twin Cities maybe don’t have a realistic view of the opportunities statewide,” said Luke Greiner, an economic analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. “They view the Twin Cities as an island of opportunity and rural Minnesota as kind of shrinking by the wayside. That is a big perception problem.”

That problem is especially acute in Southwestern Minnesota, a region Greiner has called the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to workforce and economic development issues — a place that offers a sneak peak at both the looming challenges, and unique opportunites, facing communities throughout Greater Minnesota in the years to come.

Underappreciated opportunities, big challenges

In Montevideo, the Chippewa River empties into the Minnesota River as it flows southeast, toward Granite Falls and New Ulm and on to Mankato. On a late summer morning, the fields in the area stand tall with head-high corn and shimmer with green waves of soybeans. Soon, hunters will arrive at Lac qui Parle State Park and its massive reservoir, home to thousands of migrating Canada geese. The nearby hamlet of Watson, population 205, claims the mantle as the “Goose Capitol of the USA.”

In his writing and in person, Greiner, who studies the region in his work for DEED, emphasizes the underappreciated job opportunities across the region (which, for DEED’s purposes, consists of 23 counties in a triangle bordered by South Dakota, Iowa and, basically, the Minnesota River).

Nearly 100 people work at Chandler Industries in Montevideo, Minnesota.

MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Nearly 100 people work at Chandler Industries in Montevideo, Minnesota.

According to a recent agency report, southwest Minnesota had about 6,500 job vacancies in the fourth quarter of 2016 – well above its 16-year average. Moreover, median wages “offered” (the wages employers advertise when looking for workers) between 2011 and 2016 increased by $2.26 per hour in the region – a jump that was also notably higher than the statewide average. And while the median wage offer was just $13.41 per hour during 2016, a quarter of those openings had wage offers of nearly $18 per-hour or more, according to the report.

Nor are the opportunities only in manufacturing. Jobs in southwest Minnesota are available in a variety of fields, from health care to retail to construction to the region’s two largest industries: agriculture and manufacturing.

Filling those positions, however, is another matter. One recent survey shows that while manufacturing executives in this part of the state have an optimistic view of the economy, they worry about their ability to attract the workers they need to grow. Commissioned by Enterprise Minnesota, an organization that represents manufacturers, the survey asked 400 manufacturing executives in Minnesota to identify their “biggest challenge,” giving them several options to choose from, such as “rising health care and insurance costs” and “weak economy and lower sales for your products.”

In southwestern Minnesota, 57 percent of the executives who responded to the survey identified “attracting and retaining a qualified workforce” as their biggest concern — the highest percentage for that category among the six Minnesota regions measured.

Bob Kill, the chief executive of Enterprise Minnesota, noted that, historically, companies looking to build new facilities or relocate their operations often solicited economic incentives, like deferred taxes or cheap land as sweeteners — goodies that small towns eagerly offered. These days, he said, the first question potential employers ask when they consider locating somewhere new is a different one: “Do you have enough workers?”

The old ways are no longer enough

While the open spaces and natural beauty of the prairie have always been one of this region’s best draws, its scattered towns and villages can feel remote – far from the Twin Cities, void of the clustered lakes that draw tourists to other parts of the state. After growing up, many young people leave here. Between 2000 and 2016, just five of the region’s 23 counties gained population and the percentage of people over the age of 65 is higher than the state average.

Yet business and civic leaders see other factors behind the worker shortage, including a dearth of decent housing; concerns over the quality of internet service; and the lack of training – especially for the kind of workers who make factories hum: welders, machinists and other skilled workers. More recently, businesses have begun citing another issue in attracting workers: the lack of day-care options in small towns.

Greiner, who plans to share his latest data at a gathering of business leaders in Montevideo later this month, said the situation calls for “some creative out-of-the-box thinking” on the part of both government and the private sector.

Chandler has been a stable employer, with nearly 100 people working at its plant

MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Chandler has been a stable employer, with nearly 100 people working at its plant.

Kill, the Enterprise Minnesota executive who has been reviewing the manufacturing sector at events across the state this summer, including the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities annual conference in Fergus Falls, agrees. In an interview with MinnPost, he said the insularity that many rural manufacturers have long enjoyed – going about their business in industrial parks, out of the news, confident of a stable workforce – is no longer enough. Going forward, he said, “They have to do their part. More and more, both large and small companies realize that they have to recruit and market.”

That’s already happening in some places. In one recent initiative, the Willmar Workforce Center worked with Hennepin County to bus about 100 job seekers from the western Twin Cities suburbs to southwestern Minnesota for a tour of businesses, including Chandler Industries. And Kill pointed to an example in Hutchinson, in McLeod County (just outside DEED’s southwest region), where the city and local manufacturers have invested $1.2 million in a technical education wing at the high school that will give students an apprentice-like experience in manufacturing.

In Appleton, the UMVRDC has just begun work on trying to alter some of the perceptions of the region, creating what Executive Director Dawn Hegland calls a “regional attraction plan”: an effort to present the region, largely through digital media, to people who are considering a move to rural areas. The initiative will build on the work already being done by Western Minnesota Prairie Waters, a marketing initiative whose logo is an image of Minnesota with the words “Get Rural.”

A statue of José Gervasio Artigas

MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
A statue of José Gervasio Artigas, a national hero of Uruguay, stands in downtown Montevideo, a gift from the citizens of Montevideo, Uruguay.

More visibility would help. When her agency was hiring, Hegland said, some open positions got no applicants at all. They advertised in newspapers and on social media, re-named the openings, hired a job placement service. The search was made even more challenging because many candidates needed to have college degrees, experience in community planning or similar areas and, hopefully, some knowledge of the region.

Hegland, with a resigned laugh, said her recruiting efforts sometimes amount to “guerrilla marketing”: talking about the agency’s job openings with just about everyone she encounters in this town of 1,400 residents. “Every time I am at a meeting, it seems like I ask, ‘Who do you know that might be right for this?’ ”

‘We have to control our own destiny’

It’s a cool summer morning in Montevideo, and at Chandler Industries, bordered by a cornfield on one side and Sunset Memorial Cemetery on another, about two dozen vehicles are in the parking lot. Inside, a shaven-head worker in cargo shorts and boots is checking his weight, part of the company’s efforts to promote healthy living. He proudly recorded the loss of six pounds.

Inside the cavernous manufacturing wing, machinist Tom Goschey works at a lathe, making what he called “knuckles,” hockey puck-size stainless steel discs used in valves and other equipment in the gas and oil industry.

Goschey, a Montevideo native, went to work for Chandler in the 1990s. He has family in town, a bond that has kept him from looking elsewhere for work. “Besides,” he said, “I love doing what I do, and there are good people around here.”

Tom Goschey

MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Tom Goschey works at a lathe, making what he called “knuckles,” hockey puck-size stainless steel discs used in valves and other equipment in the gas and oil industry.

Jacque Peters, Chandler Industries’ human resources manager, said the company realized several years ago that the region’s demographics presented challenges and that it would have to take steps to shore up its workforce.

For a time, Chandler recruited graduates of a machine tool program at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, which has a campus in nearby Granite Falls. When that program closed, the company hired one of the school’s retired teachers to train its workers.

More recently, the company received a $275,000 matching grant from the state, which — in conjunction with a Minnesota school — it will use to train workers over the next three years.

The company has also connected with high schools – even junior highs – to let students know about the career opportunities in manufacturing and how the industry has become a highly technical field, with workers running complicated, computerized equipment.

“We realized long ago that we would have to grow our own,” Peters said. “We have to control our own destiny.”

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/22/2017 - 11:48 am.

    Rural Minnesota

    Part of the appeal of living in rural Minnesota is the access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, southwest Minnesota is so polluted by the agriculture industry that you can’t swim or fish in any of the lakes. No one should be surprised that people are leaving and not moving back.

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/22/2017 - 07:38 pm.

    Could be that potential ….

    Employees are not interested in the ever growing conservative nature of some of these communities ? I realize my question may improperly catorgize individuals but there does seem to be a shift to the right outside of the metro areas.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/23/2017 - 12:57 am.

    An idea

    I grew up in Appleton and still have family in the area. My brother works in Montevideo. With graduate work on migration, I have also planned several class reunions, so I know why people come back.

    Some background. First, with 20-30 miles between communities, it is common to live one place and work another. People are friendly so if you grew up in one place, it is comfortable working and living in another. Second, if you moved to the metro, at some point your kids are on their own, so moving to where you want to retire someday is feasible for many by age 50. Third, your housing dollar goes a long way in SW Minnesota, so if your pay drops a bit, it is easier to handle. Fourth, the 50s is a time when people may want a job change, a slower lifestyle and dealing with job layoffs and more trouble finding employment. Fifth, career military who are ready to receive full benefits may want to return home, having spend careers where the military sent them. They have skills. They might actual be ready to be business owners, particularly of small businesses that sell to military, a market they know. Finally those people who like to hunt, fish and golf can fit those things around a job and their pocket book.

    Obviously, these communities would like to hold onto their kids, but actually it is the population age 50 and up that came from the area that may your best prospects. But how do you communicate with them?

    These towns value their heritage and enjoy holding class reunions, all school reunions and town festivals. And these reunions actually draw a lot of people back. Current contact information can be found and generally everyone gets a personal invitation.

    One thing that has never to my knowledge bern part of the reunions in my hometown is a job fair. The focus is mostly on the past, somewhat on the present and very little on the future.

    In our age obsessed society, employers focus on the young and discriminate against the old. Why not have a job fair running whenever a lot of people are already in town? At our recent all school reunion, done every 5 years, we had over 500 registrants. Many more were in town for three other gatherings the same weekend – one a special anniversary for our National Guard, two others celebrating the town and agriculture. A month eatlier, we had the county fair.

    Any of these events could include a job fair, which is an incentive to come. At the same time, area churches and real estate agents could have open houses.

    Like any idea, you don’t really know if it will work until you try it, but middle aged and older workers have skills, work hard and are able to flex schedules that fit the needs of rural employers. And once they move, they are likely to connect and bring their history of community involvement with them. Truly a win-win situation.

  4. Submitted by Wilj Flisch on 09/23/2017 - 06:26 am.

    Being from rural MN …

    Being from rural MN I think that I can probably address both of the above comments personally. Although where I grew up was slightly larger than Montevideo, it was in the same relative population bracket as this featured town (about twice the size). And unlike Montevideo, I grew up in a county with a much more vibrant tourism industry laying claim to something like 10% of MN’s lakes.

    While ‘access to the outdoors’ was, and continues to be, cited as a great benefit to living in rural areas, I can honestly say that outdoor recreation in the cities (in the middle of the city!) is vastly superior to any casual outdoor recreation where I grew up. Sure there’s lots of ‘outdoors’ in the sticks, but unlike urban areas it’s very unappreciated. Most of what you see is just monocropped fields, and even if it isn’t most of it is privately held and individual access to it may vary. The areas that are publicly available are very underbuilt compared with urban areas with no plan (nor real desire) to ever build them out or develop them in any coherent manner whatsoever. Even if such a desire did exist, it’s unclear that anything could actually materialize because leadership there just seriously lacks much in the way of administrative or development ability, or financial resources even if someone smart and passionate were in a position to ‘do something’.

    The only outdoor activity that really comes to mind as being measurably better in rural areas is hunting (because you can’t really shoot your gun a lot in the city or suburbs), but I never really hunted nor had any interest in doing so. There were kids I knew who would hunt before school (and, as an aside keep their guns in their trucks during school which is becoming increasingly difficult to (legally) do because everyone’s afraid of guns around schools) and it was great that they could hunt, but hunting season for me pretty much meant that I just had to be careful walking in the wildnerness by myself certain times of the year because no one wants to get shot by a hunter accidentally. Fishing is something that I did and maybe being near 1000 lakes is great if you have a boat and a truck – but if you’re like me and just want to throw your line in the water by the shore, I can ride my bike to a lake and do that here (in Minneapolis) but could never really do that where I grew up. (FWIW I grew up in a place not nearly as polluted as anything in SW MN – which isn’t to say that every well isn’t full of agri-pesticides – they are).

    It’s worth mentioning that bicycling is a billion times better in Minneapolis than where I grew up, unless you really like biking on skinny shoulders with cars flying past you at 65 mph…

    To respond to the 2nd post re: conservatism. I think that social factors have a much larger role to play than geographic/physical ones. Small communities are oppressive and individually stifling in a way that is very difficult to describe to anyone who has never lived in a small town. Just think: everyone you meet knows who you are, your family, your background, any weird thing anyone in your family has ever done and has a theory about why you are the way you are. It really is a panopticon – it’s terrible. There’s no reason to ever go out, because there’s nowhere to go really (unless you really like church – there are tons of those), there’s no decent coffee, no one serves any food you like, all of the alcohol consists of brands you thought people stopped drinking when your grandpa died decades ago. Oh, and everyone you meet that you get along with consistently talks about how badly they want to move away…

    And that’s what everyone does, they leave, and you leave too. You go to college and you never look back. Part of going to school is so you never have to live there, but even if you wanted to would it really make sense? I mean, it’s not like a lot of life-course options are better there: your friends all left, even if there is a job in the field you are interested in there is probably only 1 company in town that offers them (so what if you ever want to change jobs? Besides most of my friends ended up in IT – not many of these jobs). General living standards are much higher in cities and so are salaries to compensate – you can always ‘cash out’ and move to the sticks later in life – the reverse is not true. To top this off – a lot of people kind of have a partner by the time they’re done with college, so you can multiply all of these difficulties by two-fold, assuming your partner wants to live in a small town (which obviously they won’t).

    The purported benefits of rural life have never never never come close to the benefits of living in a city (although they are much closer to those of suburbs (which are kind of the worst of both paradigms)) and this has always been the main problem with trying to ‘inform’ people of why rural living is in their best interest. While it’s difficult to quantify, the non-material benefits of leaving a rural place are much, much greater. I left, got a good degree then went to grad school. While it’s always difficult to think through the counterfactuals I find it unlikely that I would have met people as interesting and engaging as those I have met by leaving, nor would I have maintained the relationships that I had from the town I left, as all of these people moved to the metro also. Nor do I ever believe that I would have been able to think or study topics that I find endlessly fascinating now, as it’s likely I never would have known the ideas even existed.

    So. This got to be a little long-winded, but I do hope that it sheds some perspective on why leaving really was better for me, and likely many others who have left rural MN would echo a sentiment roughly along these lines. It’s different for everyone sure, but if you talk to people who left you will hear all kinds of iterations of the above arguments. It’s something that people from cities just can’t understand because rural areas are just different in a way that’s alien to someone who hasn’t lived it, and alien in a way that makes small towns much worse than a city.

    Hope this helps..

    • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 09/24/2017 - 05:26 pm.


      This is like a supplement or part 2 of this article. Well written and thoughtful. Thanks!

      • Submitted by Wilj Flisch on 09/25/2017 - 03:13 am.


        Thank you for the kind words Mark.

        The other pertinent aspect of ‘moving away’ that I’d thought about after I’d written this up is an allegory an older (~80 years old) friend of mine once told me. He said many people he knew had had dreams of retiring, moving north and living on the lake. Many of those people did. But then all of their friends and family still lived in the cities – so they’d have to come back to visit. And they’d have to go to the cities for healthcare, and these trips became more and more frequent as their health deteriorated. They’d usually stay ‘up north’ for 5-10 years before moving back because they’d be making so many trips to the cities that it just wasn’t worth the bother (and from personal experience, I would agree that healthcare is better in the cities by a mile, there are just economies of scale that simply cannot be reproduced in small communities). So I don’t really buy the argument that people will be excited to move to rural areas later in life either – it’s not just young working people who have trouble making rural areas work.

        This really doesn’t surprise me because I’m from a small town and never plan on living in one ever again – but it sounds like it really does surprise a lot of people who think they like the idea of rural living until they try it.

    • Submitted by Jake Nelson on 09/26/2017 - 09:44 am.

      I agree

      I have had a similar life trajectory. I Spend my first 22 years being born raised and educated in small town MN and now live in the “Cities”. While I appreciate and enjoyed my rural upbringing, there is no way I would move back to rural MN.

      The access to the outdoors is soo much better in the metro, The large nature preserves, the amazing network of trails, etc. When I bike the empty county roads near my parents place out in the country the locals often harass me (because getting exercise outdoors in less then perfect weather is a clear sign your not from there), you don’t have to deal with that on a metro trail.

      The access is better for may other things too:

      better access to restaurants, internet, coffee, good beer, etc.

      Better access to competent honest auto mechanics, contractors, plumbers, chiropractors, etc. And access to recourse and alternative options if they are not competent or honest.

      Access to rental cars when needed!

      If I leave my job or get laid off, there are other opportunities.

      My anxiety is lower, now that I get anonymity when I want it.

      Better access to good people who have similar interests as me.

      The list goes on.

      I grew up fearing the twin cities, and I didn’t understand how anyone could live there. Now that I live here I love it, its not perfect but it is pretty great.

      • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 09/26/2017 - 07:26 pm.

        Other opportunities

        As you said, “If I leave my job or get laid off, there are other opportunities.”

        I would assume this is one of the biggest issues. How quick are these companies to lay off employees when business slows? How many are in cyclical industries?

        If there’s only 2 or 3 possible employers in a reasonable commuting distance, the employee is taking a risk. Not so bad if you’re young and single, but once you have roots (a house, a spouse with a job) you lose flexibility.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/24/2017 - 10:49 am.

    Back In The Day

    Employers located where they had access to labor. And if their operation was dependent on a natural resource, as in mining or timber, they knew they would have to provide housing for employees and often their families as well.

    These old time employers didn’t rely on the government, they relied on their own initiative. I’d prefer today’s employers not seek to expand the influence and scope of government. I guess that makes me a cranky old conservative out of touch with modern times in an era of creeping socialism. Today’s employers have grown soft, dependent as they are on the nanny state.

    Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

  6. Submitted by Jim Young on 09/25/2017 - 10:21 am.

    One more tidbit from this article – wage rates

    One thing that the economic development people don’t seem to want to highlight much is that the unfilled jobs are pretty low end. In this article it says “… the median wage offer was just $13.41 per hour during 2016, a quarter of those openings had wage offers of nearly $18 per-hour or more.” So half the unfilled jobs pay less than $27,000/year and 3/4 of them pay $36,000/year or less. Lower housing costs will help keep your expenses down a bit but the overall cost of living includes a lot more than just housing.

    I’d have a lot of trouble telling a young person to work hard at getting a good education and then go “back home” to work for those kinds of wages especially considering the alternatives.

  7. Submitted by Tom Trisko on 09/25/2017 - 04:36 pm.

    The Rural Dilemma

    Great work by Luke, Gregg and the commentators. I had a job as a Research Economist at DEED after college and did a study of “micro-cities” in outstate Minnesota.. Data on rural areas is hard to come by.

    American employers have had it easy since the Sixties when the flood of Boomers (many with college degrees) let them be picky about whom they hired and let them hold wages down. The returns to Capital have therefore been high during this time and technology has also replaced labor. The flood of Chinese goods and of illegal immigrants also helped them in regard to wages. Today that era is ending fast as a result of the retiring of the Boomers and the Trump rebellion on trade and immigration. Both urban and rural employers and towns face these problems plus rural areas face all the additional ones that Mr. Fischer spelled out so eloquently.

    In visiting my mother in rural Stearns County where I grew up, or vacationing Up North, I have found that while property taxes were much lower, so were services and infrastructure. Amenities like libraries, theaters, parks, public transit or taxis are nearly non-existent–as is quality health care. The only entertainment is TV, pull tabs and meat raffles at bars, or church and school events. Available outdoor activities are mostly for the young and adventurous who like strenuous canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, hunting, fishing, mountain bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, etc. (One can see fishermen on the buses in Minneapolis with their bait bucket and pole going to the monitored unpolluted lakes to fish.) Existing housing was somewhat cheaper, but most 21st Century people would not want to live in it. Construction of new housing was just as costly for materials as in urban areas. Groceries, clothes, etc. were generally more expensive and harder to find.

    High speed internet service would help with a few of these issues such as entertainment, medical care, education, shopping, research, business, phone service, etc. but rural Republican legislators have consistently voted against helping to build out its fiber optic back bones on an adequate scale. Whereas Minnesota businesses formerly needed land, water, iron ore, lumber, railroads, highways, airports, physical labor, now they need internet service. Many businesses of the new economy can be created or relocated nearly anywhere if they have a fast internet connection.

    Building senior housing might help to create turnover of the existing stock to open it for younger families, and might attract a few former residents to come back to their home towns. Uber or Lyft taxi services or bus services to other towns/cities would be a big amenity for seniors and a transportation cost saving for others. (I had to take off work and drive up to the local hospital on two hours notice several times to pick up my mother and take her to St. Cloud for urgent medical treatment because there is no ambulance, bus or taxi.)

    The cultural and religious conservatism is a chicken and egg problem since you need to add new people to change the culture. Most rural people are friendly and helpful however, even to gay couples, although we are an uncomfortable novelty to them. Raising kids is easier because a small town is safer, more tolerant of boys’ shenanigans, the community helps raise them, and there is less need for mothers and dads to be chauffeurs for their kids every day. Kids can be more independent. The agricultural and mining pollution of our rural land and waters is a disgrace and a health threat but its improvement faces the entrenched current agricultural and mining economy’s interests.

    Rural parts of the state have their pluses they can build on as well as minuses. Their leaders need to face these negative issues with hard truth and optimistic creativity to diversify and grow their population, communities and economies away from their shrinking historical cultural, religious, agricultural and mining bases. If they are successful, they will also help the urban areas reduce sprawl, density/crowding, traffic, housing prices and other problems by reducing population pressure. They will also re-balance the state demographically, culturally and politically. Remember and honor the past but move on into the 21st Century.

  8. Submitted by Belvin Doebbert on 09/28/2017 - 05:08 pm.

    Return of the (Pope County) Native.

    I couldn’t wait for the ink to dry on my HS diploma before leaving unimaginative, oppressive West Central Minnesota. 16 years, two more diplomas, real life exposure to cultures in 47 states and three continents, and ten years as legislative staff covering agriculture, local government, and rural environment later, I had the opportunity to return home. The time since has been wonderful.

    It is true that we struggle greatly with attracting and retaining young people. The article and comments accurately identify some of the reasons and at least flirt with some of the solutions. There are more. While not intending to write a treatise, I’ll comment on three interrelated challenges of growing importance (both to community and prospective community members) and conclude with observations about financial opportunities. The primary challenges are as follows: 1. Do the social, political, and economic environments provide and/or nurture and sustain intimate relationships? 2. Are there tangible subcommunities which are stable and both welcoming and flexible? (Does new member feel like his/her ideas and emotions are being accepted or like he/she is simply being exploited for contributions of money and effort solely for the purpose of continuing things “as they have always been done?) 3. Do the social and business environments AND the prospective member value, possess, and extend a certain measure of loyalty to each other? Let’s share a cup of coffee and break these down:

    1. Intimacy. I got lucky. While in St. Paul, I met a young woman who grew up in small town South Dakota. She had even lived on a farm for a while. When I secured a job in my home town, she was employed as a law clerk to a Federal Magistrate.. She married me anyway, but we did live apart and commute for a year. There were economic possibilities for her – if she was willing to forego top dollar high status metropolitan career opportunities. She did so, and it has worked out well. She is now serving as the Probate and Trust Section hair of the Minnesota State Bar Association – a position which would probably have been unattainable had not members of their adopted community accepted her, mentored her, and encouraged her in her various roles as professional novice, young mother, church and civic leader, and senior (not elder) community stateswoman. What did this all take? A job opportunity. A patient employer of a marginally profitable worker-in-training. Community recognition of her talent and her sincere commitment to that community. Support. And trust. These are things that every newcomer to a smaller town must be offered. And these are the things that every newcomer to such a town must gratefully accept. Without access to opportunities for intimacy for TWO being obvious and available, it is likely that neither will be attracted, or will certainly not be retained for any duration.

    2. Tangible Subcommunities. What are they? Where are they? Church members? Trap shooters? Hikers or bikers? Artists? Rotarians? Whoever they are, the common interest is less important than the subcommunity culture. This consideration is particularly sensitive as applied to those returning to their home town. I have for years joyously shared the company of my elementary music teacher in a men’s chorus, have strategized with my former prom date’s father (and local highway patrolman) and have engaged my High School wrestling coach in argument on numerous occasions. Coming to know these and other former figures of authority as equals did not come immediately, but I give them all credit for having the flexibility to accept me as something more than clay to be pressed into a permanent community mold.

    While attraction and retention of younger workers does not require prior relationships, the principle is the same: Lignten up. Let the “newbies” in. The community need not surrender control to newcomers or returners to the community, but is essential that the door be opened so that the newcomer or returner may emotionally invest in the community without feeling confrontation or even that nagging sense that their vision of what could be is resented by those deeply invested in what is or has been. In my experience, if that door is kept open, we will find that part of the attraction of a small community may be the OPPORTUNITY – not to make more money, but to satisfy a need to CONTRIBUTE to a community on a tangible scale, to be able to see the fruits of that contribution, and to feel appreciated for it.

    3. Loyalty. This is a tough nut to crack. Demographics are in the process of turning the rules of power upside down – particularly in the employer/employee world. There are those voting today who remember the great depression – who remember begging for a job, receiving work given out of charity, and being paid a quarter for a hard days work. For the most part, they were grateful for the quarter. They were loyal to one who paid. Things got better, but through the balance of the century, being without a job remained a thing to be feared. Always able to find replacements, employers’ power to pay the minimum was almost unchecked. Those who treated their employees well could count on the benefits of low turnover. In the case of unskilled jobs, employers and employees alike played by the rules dictated by a nearly endless supply of labor: workers could always be replaced if things didn’t work out. This is not so anymore, and it is unlikely to change soon. We have entered an employee’s market, and this market isn’t likely to change soon. Yes, increased automation will continue to replace some of the missing workers, but, regardless of technological advances, human workers will not become irrelevant overnight without enormous infusions of capital. Workers will remain necessary. Which brings us to this question: Exactly what do workers desire that small towns and small town employers can afford?

    To “compensate” is to repay in equal value or to “counterbalance” for effort given or sacrifice made. How do small town employers compensate their employees? Partially with money. To be sure, there are those who have made money in small towns. But over all, rural economies are less dynamic, and with less economic volume fewer major transactions, and less daily volatility. Land, homes, and associated taxes are substantially more affordable in rural areas than in a metropolitan area, and the threshold for entering home ownership is much lower. Transitional costs, specifically residential rental costs are also much more affordable. Commute times are less, typical distances are lower, and the task of getting to work is more affordable and less stressful.

    Well being can be another form of compensation. Well being is not JUST about money, and it is not JUST about “quality of life.” These are generally physical measures. There is more. Much more. It is universally true that our existence is also enhanced by positive aesthetics, stress levels, intellectual and recreational opportunities, access to quality healthcare and fulfilling spiritual experiences. These, Minnesota’s rural areas generally have in abundance.

    It is necessary to say a word about compensation from an employer’s perspective: Perhaps surprisingly, rural employers are, on average, more stable than their urban counterparts. They may not demonstrate explosive investment performance, but once established, they tend to survive longer than their urban counterparts. From my own observations, they are often led by people who risk their own money, adopt financially frugal business plans, and care more about long term viability than short term gains. Profit margins are often secondary to maintenance and sustainable growth. These behaviors may appear self serving, but often are intended to be of long term benefit to the employees. Indeed, owners of many successful rural plan for transition to employee ownership via ESOP decades before that transition is complete. In some senses, it is a “house of cards” and if imprudent decisions – such as overcompensating new employees – are made, the house falls on everyone.

    Assuming, that the decisions are sound and product market remains strong, labor shortages pose a huge threat – financially, physically, and psychologically – not just to the employer, and managers, but to rank and file employees. Enough work is always good. More work brings short term financial benefits. However, excess work as required to “fill the gap” during worker shortages causes deterioration in worker satisfaction, worker productivity per unit, organizational efficiency, and social cohesiveness in the workplace. All of this can and generally will spill over into family and community life. The discretionary activities that make a small community attractive suffer, and relief will be sought through social withdrawal, relocation, and increased reliance on unhealthy habits.

    It is not my intent to paint a grim picture of life in rural communities, but rather to emphasize that they are places of less health and happiness in times of labor shortages. So, what is to be done looking down the road? If we are attract young workers and professionals who are educated, trained, experienced, emotionally mature, and motivated to participate in and improve the life of the community in which they live, we need to be offer more than competitive compensation. (And in this world of ubiquitous entertainment and proximity to stimulating regional and urban centers, we need not offer novel amusements or still more unique dining experiences) The objective is to offer and ideally build relationship. Our employers, our community, and our very culture must also offer and be perceived as offering a climate of intimacy, privacy, and tolerance (religious, political, racial, sexual, and physical appearance). We need not abandon that by which we define ourselves (e.g. the oddly exclusive and elitist self-deprecation of jokes about Ole, Lena, Lutefisk, and Lefse), but we retain and defend the cultural barriers through which others m must pass to enter our culture at our peril. Relationships are always built with open hearts, open minds, and generosity of self. These are hard things for a community to accomplish. But, To quote “Field of Dreams”: “If we build it, (opportunities for relationship) they (skilled and dedicated young workers) will come.

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