New Ulm facing workforce development challenge

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt DEED Work Force Development Rep. LeRoy Kiecker spoke the types of needs of workers coming through DEED.

NEW ULM — Workforce development is a top challenge facing New Ulm. Nearly every business and industry in the region is hiring, but few are finding the employees needed.

The New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a Hot Topics Lunch on Workforce Development at the New Ulm Middle School. The topic included a panel represented local businesses as well as school staff speaking on the challenges of developing a modern work force.

The first speaker at the luncheon was Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Work Force Development Representative LeRoy Kiecker.

He asked people to raise their hand if they had trouble finding applicants. Nearly every employer in the room responded. The next question — who was having trouble finding “quality” applicants. The same hands went up.

Kiecker sees a lot of employees going through work transition. The goal of his office is to get them back into the workforce, but his office is also a resource for employers.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Audra Shaneman (standing), president of the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce, listens to Katie Slette ) center of New Ulm Medical Center as she speaks about the workforce challenges during a panel discussion at the chamber’s Hot Topics lunch. Also on the panel were Troy Jemison of Firmenich (left), and Josh Sabatino with Paul’s Electric.

“What we see at the workforce center are people who are looking to move up,” Kiecker said.

The current economy allows under-employed workers to move on to a better job. Loyalty to a single job is harder to maintain.

Kiecker said some of the transitional employees he sees leave jobs for better pay, but it is possible to retain workers without increasing wages.

“Keeping an employee happy doesn’t always revolve around a dollar,” he said. “If you can make them feel appreciated so they know their work matters, that’s what loyalty is built on.”

In terms of community support, Kiecker said schools need to maintain industrial arts programs and vocational classes. These classes are often cut because of the expense, but in some communities businesses will inject money back into these programs to maintain a future workforce.

Other businesses recruit outside of the community. Kiecker said there is a large immigrant population available. He also cited a Mankato company recruiting out of Puerto Rico. Since all Puerto Ricans are United States citizens less paperwork is required to relocate.

Human Resource consultant Tammy Murphy gave an update on initiatives taken since the 2016 Community Visioning Conference. In the last two years the Workforce Committee has worked on three initiatives.

The first is to develop a city-wide internship program. The internship is within the company but special events are put together to bring the interns into the community.

The second initiative is to bring training into the community, which is affordable and meets current needs.

The third of initiative is to work with schools to bring back vocational schooling.

Business Education teacher Kayla Ruch and Ag/IT teacher Kelsey Brandt introduced the new Internship Experience offered at the high school. The Internship Experience is currently seeking business partners for the 2018-2019 school year. They are trying to bring a catalog of partners to share with students. This includes bringing in speakers or organizing tours.

High School Principal Mark Bergmann said the internship program creates pathways for students to meet professionals who have specific knowledge and skills.

The luncheon ended with a panel featuring Firmenich Director of Operations Troy Jemison, Human Resource Director at New Ulm Medical Center Katie Sletta and Josh Sabatino with Paul’s Electric.

All three were currently seeking new employees. Jemison said Firmenich is seeking to fill entry level positions. NUMC has a need for those with two-year degrees as well as the doctorate level degree. Paul’s Electric has trouble filling licensed electric position.

Sletta said NUMC struggles finding Licensed Practical Nurse (LPNs). They did a search for any nursing profession within 50 miles of New Ulm. There were 75 active candidates for 8,194 postings.

“The scarcity is insane,” Sletta said.

Jemison acknowledged employee scarcity prevents expansion of Firmenich and has forced the company to try new recruitment methods. One of the challenges is trying to meet the needs of Millennials. The younger generation is seeking more flexibility in hours, which is changing manufacturing.

The panel was asked if they were seeing a diminishing work ethic in younger workers?

Sletta said it was more an issue of different generational values.

“Millennials’ value for work/life balance is very high,” she said. “Its not a work ethic issue when they are on the job but they have a priority to balance their personal life.”

In addition, volunteerism is extremely important to the millennial generation. Sletta said is easier to retain millennials if they connect to the value of the work.

Audra Shaneman, President of the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce, said on the state level workforce is the top issue for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. There have been state wide initiatives to connect businesses and schools. Shaneman briefly spoke on New Ulm’s Business Education Network (BEN) Initiative. The goal of BEN is to narrow the skills gap between students and businesses in the community. The Chamber is looking for interested individuals to help direct these efforts.

On Thursday, Oct. 4 the Tour of Manufacturing hosted in New Ulm. Parker Hannifin, American Artstone and Booth Welding and Fabrication will participate in this year’s tour.

The Career Expo for area 8th graders will be held on April 3, 2019.