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Michael Haynes: Working together will help build a bigger, better, bolder community

MORRIS – Teamwork, teamwork, and more teamwork. Individuals (and groups) working together as a team can make positive changes in Stevens County’s future, our future.

An alarm bell is sounding right now. It began ringing some time in the distant past. Very softly at first, but now it’s as loud as loud can be. The alarm bell is getting louder for a problem that is continuing to develop at an increasingly more rapid pace and is hidden from almost everyone’s attention. Those who do see the problem are our human resource directors, our government administrators, and others of us who are involved in the economic growth of our community.

The alarm is ringing because our population is projected to continue to shrink well beyond 2030 and into 2060.The people needed to fill current and future job openings are not projected to be here.

By 2030, Stevens County is projected to have a population of 9,093 (633 less than the 2010 census) and in 2060 the county population is projected to be 8,008 (1,718 less than the 2010 census). This means fewer jobs will be created and fewer businesses will start and perhaps we may even lose businesses that cannot find employees.

Population loss means fewer opportunities for our employers to find new or replacement employees in the available labor force. One of our companies had to expand and create a number of jobs in another state because they knew that the people needed to work the new jobs were not here.

In December 2013 the Department of Employment and Economic Development reported that there were 6,356 jobs in Stevens County. There are almost as many jobs in Stevens County as there are those of us who live in Alberta, Chokio, Donnelly, Hancock and Morris combined. That is an astounding set of numbers. Our job growth has a 13  percent average annual increase since 2000.

Our business owners have achieved many successes that require serious efforts on our part to keep and to bring new people into our community to continue to support. We have to work to keep our valuable businesses. Stevens County’ 2012 average weekly wage of $715 (with manufacturing jobs averaging $808) is greater than the  six counties that surround us (including Douglas) and the nine counties in Region 4 but less than that paid in all of Minnesota and in the US by large amounts. Our rate of wage growth (averaging 3.7 percent each year since 2000) is faster than any of the same comparison groups including Minnesota and the US.

Also, do not forget the very significant impact that our successful agriculture production (beef and dairy cows, pork, grains, etc.) farming, value-added (ethanol production, red bean processing, seed research, etc.) and farm service businesses (implement dealers, coops, etc.) have played in our economic growth. Farms are businesses too.

The labor force that supplies our work force crosses many county and at least one state’s borders. We are not the only county in Minnesota facing dramatic and prolonged labor force shortages. Competition for labor has become intense across the region, the state and the upper midwest. The lack of a sufficient labor force means that present and future employers will have to make more decisions that are not in the best interest of our economic growth.

Accompanying the projected devastating population loss in Stevens County (and in five of the six counties that surround us) is North Dakota’s Bakken oil field’s hiring binge. Many above average wage paying jobs have been and will continue to be created. The oil boom has created a job vacuum that is sweeping clean the labor force in the upper midwest. The oil fields have been expanded into northwestern South Dakota. Employers in the oil fields are sending buses to Fargo and other cities in several states to transport employees to their jobs in western North Dakota. Weekly buses go from Fargo and other large cities in the upper midwest to the oil fields. The buses leave early Monday morning to go to work and return late Friday night to go home for the weekend.

That movement of labor to the west forces employers in Fargo and other locations (and in other states) losing workers to the oil fields to use the same methods to get new or replacement employees. There are at least three bus routes with one departure time (early morning) and one return time (late evening) each weekday between cities in Minnesota (Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud) and Fargo. Most North Dakota employers are paying the fare as an additional cost of doing business.

Here are 10 ways to get and to keep more of us living and working here in our home:

1. Recognize and acknowledge that our business owners, investors, managers, and employees have made our robust and growing commercial and agricultural economy what it is today. Sell us to ourselves.

2. Identify and act on strategies that can be developed in partnership with our business, education and government groups. We all have a stake in this.

3. Recognize and promote the fact that our economy is strong and better than most believe that it is. Again, sell us to ourselves.

4. Continue to support Leadership Morris, Blandin Foundation Community Leadership Programs and other opportunities to grow our leaders. Get smarter.

5. Continue the opportunities for our schools to provide and to broaden “Career Days” to include mentorships, working internships, part-time jobs, and employer provided post-secondary financial assistance for our 11th and 12th grade students and to include tours of community businesses and other organizations for our elementary school students. Start when our children are young to keep them here and not there, wherever there could be.

6. Form a “Welcome Wagon” effort to welcome our new friends and neighbors. First impressions count and don’t new friends need a visit from the neighbors (us)?

7. Encourage everyone to become members of the Stevens County “quality of life” sales force. If we can’t or don’t sell ourselves, who else will?

8. Continue to encourage and support our existing and new businesses to provide more and better services that will keep our dollars from leaving home. Help our local business make the profit from business, not some other business somewhere else – wherever that somewhere else is.

9. Increase the number and the quality of our affordable housing units. If we are to get more people to move or to remain here, they need someplace to live.

10. Expand our Morris Industrial Park and continue to provide infrastructure improvements to roads and other public services. There are more ideas and methods and by no means is this list in any priority order.

The Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission (SCEIC) cannot reverse the threat of population loss alone. It is not a narrow problem with narrow solutions that can be solved by a few. Each of us individually and each of our businesses, each of our organizations, and each of our government units are the sales force for a Stevens County-wide population recruiting effort.

The projected future does not bode well for the next 46 years. But, population loss does not have to happen. Together we can work (as a team) to help our community (our home) to become bigger, better and bolder.

Michael Haynes is the Executive Director of the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission.