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Help wanted: the city of Brainerd takes a harder look at unemployment

Unemployment rates. It’s been a topic of conversation across the United States and the state of Minnesota the past few years, and a concern many in Crow Wing County and Brainerd have had a heavy dose of, too. A concern that a group of varying local, regional and state organization members attempted to address and strived to fix during Monday night’s meeting at Central Lakes College, focused solely on discussion of Brainerd’s unemployment and possible solutions.

“It’s (unemployment) been a trigger for conversation for us at the (Brainerd Lakes) Chamber for quite awhile,” said Lisa Paxton, chief executive officer for Brainerd Lakes Chamber, to a group of roughly 30 consisting of both Brainerd and Baxter City Council members, Brainerd School Board members and other business leaders affected by Monday’s discussion. “But what really triggered tonight’s (Monday) conversation was that many in the community talk about unemployment and hire rate, they explain that it’s always been high and that is just the way it is.

“But we want to change that way of thinking. We want to find out why it is higher than elsewhere and what can be done about it. So we have assembled a snapshot of contributing factors to employment, or rather unemployment, in Brainerd and want to identify some goal’s on how to move beyond it.”

Presenting on all facets that contribute to the lower economic status in Crow Wing County and the Brainerd area were:

• Shelia Haverkamp, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC)

• Trudi Amundson, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

• Craig Nathan, Minnesota Rural Concentrated Employment (CEP)

• Jennifer Bergman, Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Brainerd

• Jeff Wig, Central Lakes College

• Steve Razidlo, ISD 181 Superintendent

Listed recently as having the highest unemployment in the state with a jobless rate of 13.3 percent in December and a 14.9 percent in January, Haverkamp said that between 2000-2010 Crow Wing County actually saw a five percent increase in job growth.

“There are more than 27,000 jobs in Crow Wing County and roughly 10,000 in Brainerd,” Haverkamp said, noting that 38 percent of those available jobs in Brainerd are in education and health services. “But because there are so many seasonal jobs in the city of Brainerd at the same time, Brainerd actually saw a job loss in that time of (county job) growth.”

A minor contributing factor, often reflected during the winter months unemployment statistics, the amount of seasonal job opportunities available in the area along with the number of people that retire to the lakes area and are no longer working tend to skew some of the statistics collected. But as is yin and yang, the tourist attraction of the area also can be attributed to the reason some of the numbers are skewed in the area’s favor.

“If you remove the lakes, we’re (Crow Wing County) one of the ten poorest counties in the state,” said Rural Minnesota CEP Manager Craig Nathan. “Those people are coming and building and buying homes and help bring that poverty level up a little bit.”

And while a negative light in unemployment rates tends to shine heavily on Brainerd, Trudi Amundson of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Corporation said that many of the statistics collected through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reflect on the entire zip code 56401, which extends beyond the city of Brainerd. A piece of information that when presented to the group, let out a sigh of relief.

“It’s almost a relief to hear that the unemployment is higher than the rest in Brainerd because it deals with (zip code) 56401,” said Brainerd City Council President Mary Koep. “I am happy to know it’s not just Brainerd that is struggling immensely with this issue.”

But still the question remains why. Why is Brainerd in such a high unemployment state? Following the presenters and a brief question and answer session, people in attendance broke up into five groups to try and answer just that.

“Looking at some of the data, you see that there is a large gap as far as required skills goes,” said Wig, speaking on behalf of his group. “We have many applicants for a position and few have the transferable skills needed for the job.”

And for the under-educated applicants — with 44 percent of those unemployed in the area having just a high school education on top of the 37 percent with less than a high school education according to Nathan and the Work Force Center — missing the necessary intellectual skills, there is also a large number of older people missing necessary skills to rejoin the workforce in the area.

“For older people who suddenly find themselves out of work, there is an issue in them not having the necessary technological and computer skills often needed in today’s job market,” said Don Hickman, Vice President for Community and Economic Development at the Initiative Foundation, who led the group conversations. “It’s a lot harder to teach an old dog new tricks where this young pups can learn and have learned a lot of those skills.”

Another potential factor as identified by one of the groups is the possibility that being one of the largest out-state towns and with the high amount of low-income housing available, the attraction for lower income families remains there.

And while discussion and ideas flowed throughout the two hour session, Nathan said the problem is more complex than something that will be solved overnight.

“I think there is a huge disconnect between the data presented and the reality,” said Nathan. “No matter how much data we get, we still have an unemployment problem. I’m not saying we won’t have a problem if we come up with a solution to potentially solve some of the high rates we have in the area, but we all have our data to try and figure it out, but it’s an extremely complex problem.

“The real problem is that we need to figure out all the characteristics of unemployment and first lower those and then maybe we will see a lower unemployment rate.”

The Initiative Foundation will be granting $10,000 to Brainerd to further address the problem.

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).