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Less boom, smaller bust

WILLMAR -- Counties in west-central Minnesota didn't see their economies skyrocket during the boom times that preceded the recession, but neither did the bottom fall out when the economy turned sour.

A new analysis by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development shows that while the recession resulted in job losses all across the state, rural counties on average were hit somewhat less hard.

Kandiyohi, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties lost less than 3 percent of their total employment. Meeker, Pope and Renville counties lost between 3 and 5.9 percent of their employment.

The news was no surprise to Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Partnership.

"We have a more stable economy," he said. "We don't go up as fast or as high. Also when the corrections take place, the correction isn't as severe."

According to the DEED statistics, non-metropolitan counties saw a 4.4 percent decline in employment from mid-2007 through the third quarter of 2009, while metropolitan counties lost nearly 6 percent of their total employment.

Altogether, Minnesota lost 143,000 jobs, or 5.3 percent of total state employment, during the two years covered by the analysis.

Cameron Macht, a regional analyst with the Department of Employment and Economic Development in central and southwestern Minnesota, said that in much of Minnesota the recession began in late 2007 and deepened through 2008. For this region of the state, however, 2009 was "the worst year," he said.

Statewide, manufacturing and construction were hit hardest, and neither metro nor rural counties were spared. McLeod County, the home of Hutchinson Technology, saw job losses of greater than 9 percent from late 2007 through mid-2009.

Rural counties, such as Kandiyohi County, where food manufacturing is more prevalent were buffered to a greater degree, Macht said.

"Food manufacturing has been relatively stable despite the recession... The demand remains pretty constant," he said.

While dairy and hog farmers have struggled with low prices, crop farming also has been strong, he said. "That insulates us a little bit."

Through the recession, many counties in the region continued to see some job growth in sectors such as wholesale trade.

"Health care and social assistance actually has been growing despite the recession, not only in our area but statewide," Macht said. "These jobs tend to be higher paying because of the higher level of skills and the higher demand."

Statistics for the fourth quarter of 2009, the most recent available, indicate Minnesota's employment may slowly be recovering.

Among the occupations with the highest demand in the region: food service, cashiers and retail sales clerks, suggesting that consumers are once again beginning to spend money in stores and restaurants.

"We are starting to see a rebound in retail," Macht said.

As the region emerges from the recession, it's going to be especially critical to foster the development of innovative industries such as biotechnology and alternative energy, Renquist believes.

"This new economy isn't just going to go to who's going to work the cheapest. It's going to go to who's the most innovative," he said.

He points to the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar as a prime example. In less than five years, the campus, which occupies the grounds of the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center, has grown to 20 companies with more than 250 employees.

"They're heading in the right direction we had all hoped it would go," he said. "We're trying to add to our innovation quotient in the county. That could mean some more swings with the ups and downs in the economy but we're willing to weather it."

It also means that workers in the future will have to be more highly skilled, Macht said.

"Job seekers certainly need to look at upgrading their skills," he said. "A lot of them are going back to school and getting some additional training. Hopefully they'll be getting back to work."