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Finding workers in southwestern Minnesota an economic challenge as need for diversity in workforce grows

David Lamas, corporate recruiter for Duininck Incorporated, said the company has found success by recruiting workers from racial and ethnic minorities in the region. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service

MONTEVIDEO, Minn.—When residents of the Upper Minnesota River Valley are surveyed on the challenges the region faces, the number one response is "a lack of jobs.''

"Absolutely against what all the data say,'' said Luke Greiner, regional market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Greiner said the biggest economic challenge facing the region—indeed most of Southwest Minnesota—is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of workers for them. It's hard for business to expand here, or for outside businesses to enter this market when it's hard to find the employees they need, he explained.

Greiner spoke Friday, Sept. 22, in Montevideo, Minn., at "The Power of Different,'' an employer seminar hosted by the Southwest Initiative Foundation and a host of regional partners. It made the point that embracing diversity in the workplace is a competitive advantage. Businesses with a diverse workforce are better able to recruit and retain employees they need in a tight labor market.

"Diversity is a smart business decision,'' said the featured speaker, Tracy Hassan, a New York city native now living in Hutchinson, Minn.

The region's challenges are well known. Its population is both aging and shrinking. The population declined by 12.5 percent from 1950 to 2016, a time when the state's population grew by 85 percent.

The region's overall losses would be much greater were it not for gains in the populations of racial and ethnic minorities in the region.

Businesses that are smart enough to recruit from these populations can do well for it, according to panelists who spoke at the event.

Len Bakken is human resources manager with JBS, a large meat packing operation in Worthington, Minn. He said the company has 2,200 employees, and 56 different languages are spoken in the plant. Many of its best employees are the second generation of newcomers to the region. "They give 120 percent every day,'' he said.

Speakers said that it is possible to recruit workers from minority ethnic and racial communities, but emphasized that it takes work. Duininck Companies is headquartered in the small community of Prinsburg, yet has been able to meet its workforce needs by recruiting minority workers, explained David Lamas, corporate recruiter.

A Hispanic native of Chicago, Lamas has made Prinsburg, Minn., his home. He said the company's proximity to Willmar and its diverse population helps, but the important thing is to make an effort to recruit, according to Lamas.

"It takes a lot of work, a lot of networking, talking. You have to reach out and then they will come,'' he said.

The efforts to recruit a diverse workforce are likely to become increasingly important in coming years. Greiner said much of the region is seeing a continued population decline. It's most evident in the white population. Overall, the region lost nearly 15,000 white residents from 2000 to 2015, he pointed out.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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