MANKATO — If lawmakers want to help grow jobs, they need to support regional efforts to attract more people and help fix quality of life issues.
That's what area business and education leaders told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's staff Thursday afternoon.
Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, has had her staff tour the state this week to discuss local initiatives to get more people working in advance of a looming statewide workforce shortage of tens of thousands of people over the next five years.
"This is important policy for everyone," Klobuchar said in a video statement.
Klobuchar has worked on various legislation over the past few years to promote apprenticeship opportunities for skilled and technical labor workers. The senator secured a $5 million grant from the Department of Labor in 2015 that helped create the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, which supporters say helps bridge the gap between colleges and businesses.
South Central College has built several apprenticeship and internship programs in the area through business partnerships. Though apprenticeships are popular in Europe, U.S. businesses have moved away from those types of programs over the past few decades. College officials say more federal support is needed to grow apprenticeship opportunities for students.
"We've kind of left that maybe in the '80s or the '90s as a country, and we're struggling because of it," said SCC President Annette Parker.
Mankato business experts say the biggest hindrance to the region's job growth is attracting people. Last year, Greater Mankato Growth found the Mankato area will need almost 2,800 new workers by 2020 to cover projected job openings. That's an uphill climb for almost every growing regional center in the state, according to GMG President and CEO Jonathan Zierdt.
The Mankato area is looking to draw in new workers by highlighting the area's quality of life and find better ways to connect workers with employers. GMG recently unveiled an online jobs and internships portal, greatermankatojobs.com, but are looking into other opportunities to hook potential new residents.
GMG is working with local businesses to create Kato X, a virtual tours website that would highlight local sights and activities as a way to market the Mankato area. People could visit the area in virtual reality to experience the region's outdoor attractions while businesses could market themselves in subtle ways.
"Maybe you're an outdoor person," Zierdt said. "If I could give you an experience in three minutes what it's like to kayak down the Blue Earth River, I might bring you and your entire family here pretty fast."
Yet businesses also need to offer more benefits to workers to attract them, from better medical care packages to help with student loans. Zierdt said some area businesses are looking at offering to pay a majority of an employee's student loan debt but could need state and federal help to ensure those payments aren't taxable income.
The demand for workers is especially crucial for smaller communities in rural Minnesota, which lose some of their workforce to larger cities like Mankato.
"Everybody's been trying to recruit in your neighborhood," said Tami Murphy of Windings Manufacturing Inc. in New Ulm. "Taking workers from each other is not going to solve the situation that we're in."
In addition, transportation, housing and day care needs are large roadblocks for workers and a difficult barrier for employers to retain their staff.
Economic experts in southern Minnesota have sought a slight decrease in daycare license standards to encourage more child care businesses, which could help fix a day care shortage across the state.
In some cases, employers are offering child care and housing opportunities as part of job offerings to workers.
"It's just the way it has to be now," Murphy said.
Minnesota's immigrants have been held up as a potential solution to an upcoming statewide workforce shortage, but experts say not enough has been done to reach out to immigrant communities.
Brent Pearson, project manager for the Region Nine Economic Development Commission, highlighted the fact there are few immigrant or refugee headhunters or advisers who can connect workers to area jobs. Language barriers and transferable credits for highly educated foreign workers prove to be additional barriers for those workers.
If the state wants to help connect immigrants to jobs, they'll need to make more outreach efforts.
"I can't tell you how many economic development meetings I've sat in where people have said we have an impending workforce shortage, we need 3,000 workers, and we're looking at this immigrant population to fill that," Pearson said.