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Manufacturers brainstorm on workforce development

Local manufacturing employers Roger Roy (left), Betty Street, Tim Walker and Brandon Andersen participate in group discussion Thursday at an event focused on workforce development. The event, offered by Enterprise Minnesota at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, focused on attracting and retaining employees. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

With one-third of Minnesota manufacturers expressing concern with workforce attraction and retention in a recent survey, lakes area employers gathered Thursday to learn more about leadership development within their organizations.

An event organized by consulting firm Enterprise Minnesota invited manufacturing executives to the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce to learn about strategies to attract and retain skilled workers, along with developing talent within organizations for future leadership. Business growth consultant Abbey Hellickson led the session, which was free thanks to sponsorship from Deerwood Bank.

"We want the talent of our people to be productively applied in our organizations," Hellickson said.

The training comes in the context of impending workforce challenges as baby boomers edge toward retirement and skilled trades face increasing difficulty in matching available workers to available careers. Rural areas are expected to feel this crunch even more starkly, as young people leave their hometowns to move to urban areas for schooling and higher wages.

According to the Center for Rural Policy and Development, central Minnesota is expected to experience a 92 percent increase in the population age 64 or older by 2035, while the population of those ages 15-64 is expected to dip by 1 percent in the same timeframe.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported the highest number of job vacancies ever recorded in Region Five—2,325—during the second quarter of 2016. Region Five includes Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

Hellickson said one way small- to mid-sized manufacturing companies are working to improve workplace culture and recruitment is through branding.

"What does it mean to work for my organization, to be a fit for my culture?" Hellickson said. "What are you going to get when you work for us?"

Hellickson said smaller companies are beginning to build up recruitment brands in a way larger companies have already capitalized on. She noted this is particularly important as the millennial generation occupies more space within the workforce. This generation of workers has increasing expectations from employers in what they expect to gain through employment with a particular company.

"We have to mesh together organizational needs with individual needs," Hellickson said.

Following Thursday's session, Tom Haglin, owner of plastic thermoforming manufacturer LINDAR and aluminum tool manufacturer Avantech, said recruitment branding was his biggest takeaway from the session. Haglin said this could be accomplished not only on the individual company level, but also on the community level.

"One of the things we need to do is have more people move and stay in this area," Haglin said. "I think collectively, companies could brand what it's like to be employed at some of these wonderful companies."

Haglin said this means increasing awareness among locals of what companies like his do, and the types of careers available.

"I don't know that our area is any more challenged than others," Haglin said. "I think we have a leg up because of our area. There's a shortage all the way around. I think though that collectively our area is more engaged and very proactive in being leaders in employee development."

Tim Walker, employee development coordinator at Pequot Tool and Manufacturing, said events like Thursday's provide opportunities for the region to become stronger.

"We have a lot of small- to mid-size manufacturers in our area," Walker said. "No one in that sector is able to individually access this kind of training without collaboration. ... Anytime we can do things together, it makes us a regionally stronger area to draw workforce."

Walker said partnerships such as the Lakes Area Manufacturing Alliance and Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection increase the region's viability to retain workers.

"I think it's more the perception that there are no good careers here," Walker said. "If we can retain the talent and the people that are passionate to live in this area, I think it's more about not losing people to the big city than it is about attracting people from the big city. As we continue to leverage the technology for the training and development opportunities when we show that this is a great place to live but it's also a great place to have a career, that's, I think, when we can truly leverage and gain in our region."

Walker said state and federal dollars aimed at workforce skills training help to fill gaps left by a lack of high school shop classes, as an example. He pointed to programs such as the Minnesota PIPELINE Project and the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, both of which are aimed at providing training opportunities for young people in industries including advanced manufacturing and information technology.

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