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'More of what workers want': Wage hikes, incentives on the table as employers try to rebuild workforce

Regional hiring experts said workers are likely to benefit from continued shortages into 2022.

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Crystal Haugen practiced giving a patient a bed bath on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, ahead of her exams to become a certified nursing assistant. Haugen is a student at Minneapolis College.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

EDITOR’S NOTE: It's called "The Great Resignation," a seismic upheaval in the workforce that is reshaping today's economy. This week, Forum Communication Co. reporters will look at The Great Resignation's profound effects on workers and businesses across the region in our multi-part series, "Help Wanted." This is the final story in the series.

MINNEAPOLIS — Crystal Haugen dipped a washcloth into a bin of warm soapy water before gently rubbing clean the arm and face of a mannequin.

It was a warm-up session before Haugen and her peers at Minneapolis College test to get their certification as nursing assistants and go out across the state to care for patients and nursing home residents.

"It has given me more of gratitude toward nursing assistants and the thankless job that they do to take care of the patients," the 33-year-old psych associate said as she practiced different skills with the mannequin and classmate Victoria Amoh. "They’re on the ground floor."

The pair are hoping to enter the field as the state reports a critical shortage of caregivers. And their tuition will be waived as Minnesota attempts to train up 1,000 new CNAs by the end of the month.

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Help Wanted series logo

Senior care industry leaders have said the staffing shortage in Minnesota has prevented them from admitting new residents in more than 70% of nursing homes. And that has created a bottleneck for hospitals since they can't discharge patients who no longer need emergency or intensive care for illnesses or injuries. Minnesota leaders have tried to stave off the problem by deploying trained National Guard troops to relieve caregivers and opening up alternative care sites.

“I was already going to do it regardless,” Haugen said of pursuing her certification. “I just knew that since COVID happened there’s been a shortage everywhere job-wise and I’d rather just have the background and knowledge to be able to be able to help out if I can and have that experience to be a better nurse and not take for granted what nursing assistants do.”

The caregiver shortage and its ripple effects were dire enough to spur state intervention but across other sectors, businesses are having to go it on their own to convince workers to join or to stay on with them.

In the state and across the region, that has spurred raises for workers, new bonuses to take a job or incentive pay to stay there for a certain amount of time. And experts say they expect the strong position for workers is set to continue into 2022 as Minnesota and North Dakota see their economies near a pre-pandemic level.

"The wages are increasing, work-life balance will probably get better for people," said Carey Fry, Fargo Workforce Center manager at the North Dakota Job Service. "We will see more of what workers want."

Minnesota lost 416,300 jobs between February and April of 2020 due to the pandemic and state measures aimed at preventing its spread. While employers have been able to hire back about 73% of those positions, many reported that they were still struggling to recruit a full workforce.

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Crystal Haugen practices nursing skills on a mannequin during a skills lab class on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at Minneapolis College.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Minnesota economic development leaders in December reported that while the state's workforce was building back from the hit of COVID-19, around 120,000 who'd been employed before the pandemic had yet to return. They said fear of contracting the illness, lack of child care and other factors had kept them from going back to work.

“The pandemic itself, the shift to telework, the lack of child care, all of those things disrupted household decision-making regarding supply of labor and who’s going to work and how much," Minnesota State Economist Laura Kalambokidis said. "And we saw a very strong appetite for business formation through the pandemic, so a lot of people who left the labor force may have left the labor force to start a business and they’re not coming back."

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The pandemic reset priorities for many workers, labor union leaders said, and it brought into focus the need to better compensate them for their work, especially as some continued in-person jobs amid COVID-19.

"It's been a long time coming," Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy said. "When you look at wages over the past decade or so, it hasn't kept up the cost of living, it just hasn't kept up for workers in terms of being able to sustain a family."

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doug Loon said the group surveyed business owners around the state to understand how they were recruiting and retaining workers in the tight labor market. Most were boosting wages, he said, but they also reported that they were retraining workers to fill other positions, allowing for more flexible schedules to accommodate their lives and boosting benefits like paid leave time, health care and retirement packages.

"We really see a lot of innovating around workforce now and how do they attract and retain," Loon said. "I think businesses are being successful in getting their employees that they have into the right positions with the correct wages to meet the need. But we still see 120,000 Minnesotans who have chosen not to come back into the workforce."

Culture likely to change too

Workers and business leaders said there's more to recruiting and retaining a workforce than increasing salaries. Employers around the region have also adjusted their hiring criteria and opened up new services that workers wanted.

“We have to pivot, we have to change, we have to change how we’re thinking and we have to really become people-centric," Jill Berg, president of Spherion Staffing, said.

That means offering wages that meet workers' needs, but also giving them more flexible schedules, establishing a welcoming workplace culture and putting people in jobs that are meaningful to them. Some businesses have also opened onsite child care centers or shifted employee schedules to help them spend more time with family.

Fry, with the North Dakota Job Service, cited glass manufacturer Cardinal IG as a good example of a company succeeding in its recruitment efforts. The Fargo employer has a reputation for hiring overlooked groups like new Americans and pays about $18 an hour.

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“They provide a good family-oriented, culturally accepted work environment. They’re motivating to each other," Fry said. "It’s a good place for people to work. I mean, they may not get 100 applicants for every opening they have, but they’re still able to get enough quality people applying. And a lot of times those places hire people just by word of mouth.”

Businesses could also turn to groups that might've been weeded out in the past. By dropping some educational requirements, employers could tap into communities of workers who don't have college degrees but are "Skilled Through Alternative Routes." Business Insider reports that there are about 40 million STARS in the United States.

And they could also consider workers with disabilities or former felons who've served out their sentences, according to Business Insider.

Forum reporter Tammy Swift contributed to this story from Fargo. Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

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