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Desperately seeking workers: Job vacancies high, unemployment low, locals respond

With job vacancies in greater Minnesota up 22.7 percent over last year and unemployment at a record 19-year low, it's hard to say short-handed businesses are experiencing anything short of a crisis.

That 22.7 percent increase in job vacancies equates to 60,200 jobs, a gap that the incoming labor force just doesn't have the numbers to fill as the Baby Boomers continue to retire. But more than not enough people to fill the jobs, state agencies like DEED are starting to look at other factors these ever-open jobs have in common, and why they may not be appealing to the incoming labor force.

DEED reported that in 2018's second quarter, 38 percent of job vacancies were for part-time employment, defined as fewer than 35 hours per week. Fifty-six percent of the vacancies did offer health insurance, though, a benefit less commonly seen in part-time positions.

Temporary or seasonal work also seemed to be tougher to fill than year-round work, with 12 percent of the vacancies landing in that category.

Many of the job vacancies also fell within the same career wheelhouses.

"Statewide, the health care and social assistance industry accounted for 17 percent of vacancies, followed by accommodation and food service (16 percent)," reads a DEED press release. The release goes on to say retail trade takes third place for job vacancies at 12 percent and manufacturing rolls in at fourth, accounting for eight percent of the job vacancies.

Becker County gets into position

Businesses in Becker County have been bracing for these record-breaking years for job vacancies for years, though. With an economy that relies heavily on healthcare and manufacturing industries as well as a bustling tourism industry that increases the need for temporary and seasonal work, Detroit Lakes is hard-pressed when it comes to these statistics. That's why businesses have been getting creative, trying to make their vacant positions more appealing to potential employees with incentives like the scholarship program Ecumen started last year, which awards even part-time employees a full-ride to M State in Detroit Lakes for certain majors.

People in the community knew that to combat such a worker shortage, they would have to dig deeper, too, targeting not just college-age students but high school students as well with a complete curriculum overhaul.

After a couple trial semesters last year, the Detroit Lakes High School's new academy model should "improve every year going forward," said to School-To-Work Instructor Vern Schnathorst.

The high school began implementing an academy model last year to better prepare students for the workforce by giving them more career-specific teaching and training. The trial year started with the freshmen, who all took a seminar course that Schnathorst says "was a really good starting point."

Now that school staff has identified the career pathways they will offer upperclassmen (engineering, manufacturing, and building trades; information technology; business and entrepreneurship; health sciences; and public services), they are working diligently to create curriculum to fit students' learning needs.

"At the beginning, we're asking two questions," said Schnathorst, "Number one, what should they know? And number two, what should they be able to do? That's what's called backwards curriculum design."

Rather than designing curriculum and hoping a student has the ability to transfer what they learn to the workplace, classes will be designed specifically around what the students will need to take with them into their career paths post-graduation. And, even more helpful, with those specific career pathways, students shouldn't even need to leave the community to find a career after graduation, if they don't want to.

"All the pathways that we made a decision on, our decision was based on needs now and forecasted in the futures," said Schnathorst, adding that administrators and instructors spent a good amount of time simply surveying local businesses about what skills they needed the incoming workforce to have in order to land jobs at "places of high demand and high wage...where they can make at least a middle-class income or above."

While the workforce is indeed quickly waning, high school staff doesn't want to rush the implementation of the academy model—they want to do it right.

"We've been really intentional and done a lot of studies," added Schnathorst, adding that they won't be incorporating sophomores into the academy model until next year. Then, the juniors and seniors will be added in the following year with the full implementation of the curriculum in fall 2020.

The intention is to be observant and flexible with the process—if something needs changing, it will get changed.

"We want to be really authentic with the process. If we need to create a modification somewhere, we want to do that," he said, adding that they are already thinking about incorporating more curriculum into the information technology, like web design and coding.

Whether the academy model was fully implemented today or in 2020, local, state—even national—businesses are still up against more than simply an ill-prepared workforce; they're going to need to get creative to fight for the meager number of eligible workers out there right now.

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