Area business, education, agriculture and labor union leaders discussed workforce issues in a roundtable discussion led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Monday at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks.
It was part of the senator's two-day swing through northwest Minnesota that included stops in Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, Thief River Falls and Crookston.
Klobuchar is running to retain her seat in the U.S. Senate in this fall's election. Her opponent is Jim Newberger, a Republican from Becker who has represented central Minnesota's District 15B in the state House for the past six years.
During the informal discussion, Klobuchar touched on topics ranging from worker shortages in specific job categories to the lack of day care services to how the current tariff situation and pending immigration reform could affect the supply of workers in this region.
"Everywhere, we hear the same thing — workforce, housing, child care and, for me, immigration reform and the headwind of tariffs," Klobuchar said. "We need to be looking for more opportunities to market our products overseas."
She heard from business leaders who daily face the challenges of finding and hiring qualified employees.
Doug Runyan, service manager for Valley Truck in East Grand Forks, said he's been looking to hire diesel mechanics, without luck, for seven months.
"The system is going to have to find a way to pay these young gentlemen and women," Runyan said. "We have to raise the bar with their pay."
Curt Hanson, training manager at American Crystal Sugar Co., said, "We're understaffed."
The company, which usually employs about 1,300 workers, has between 125 and 150 job openings but, because of the work schedule, some prospective workers may be discouraged.
"It's hard for a single parent to come to work for us, because we have 12-hour shifts," Hanson said.
The lack of sufficient day care services affects single parents as well as families in which both parents are working, Klobuchar said.
"It's a problem all over rural Minnesota," she said.
Education, "a driver of the economy," will be crucial to solving workforce problems, she said.
Digi-Key Electronics in Thief River Falls offers employees evening courses on site to increase their skills.
"We've added 300 new jobs since Nov. 1," said Rick Trontvet, Digi-Key's vice president for administration, adding that, in terms of sales, "we were a $2 billion company last year, and we'll be a $3 billion company this year."
Northland Community and Technical College, which has campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, is doing its part, said Dennis Bona, the college's president.
"It's fun to be proactive," he said, but "students are reactive. They come to us when they see the job availability. There are lots of paths to employment."
"We are proud of our partnerships with business and industry," he said.
The college saw a "robust" enrollment spike of 6.6 percent this fall, the largest increase in the past eight years, Bona said, compared to the 1 percent up or down changes that have typified that period.
The biggest portion of that increase is in the 30- to 39-year-old age group, he said.
Last spring, NCTC placed 938 graduates in this "workforce-starved area" in fields such as health, agriculture, manufacturing and food manufacturing, Bona said.
Another hopeful sign may be the influx of women who are becoming skilled laborers.
More women are going into the trades, said Mark Froemke, president of the Red River Valley, North Dakota and Minnesota chapter of the AFL-CIO.
"A lot of them have children" and they view those jobs favorably for their income potential, he said.
"We need those jobs filled," Froemke said. "It's good for our community, good for our area and good for America, let's face it."