Unemployment in Kandiyohi County has fallen to the lowest level since the recession. But lurking within the county's workforce and demographic statistics is a time bomb waiting to go off. The largest concentration of workers is among the middle-aged and older who are nearing retirement. The smallest is the 25- to 44-year-old age group that will succeed them.
"We honestly think about this all the time," said Barbara Chaffee, chief executive of Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services.
She and staff from the regional Jobs and Training Services office shared the statistics -- and their implications -- with the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners this week.
As a regional center with a diverse economy, Kandiyohi County is well situated, officials said.
"It's a good, strong community in which to live and work," said Twylla Wozniak, regional manager with Central Minnesota Jobs and Training.
Unemployment in Kandiyohi County at the end of May stood at 4.5 percent, the lowest in the 11-county region, which stretches from Kandiyohi and Renville counties in the southwest to Mille Lacs and Isanti counties in the northeast, she said. The rate has been dropping steadily since peaking at 6.9 percent at the height of the recession.
The region's total unemployment still hasn't returned to pre-recession levels, Chaffee said. "We still have about 15,800 people in our region who are unemployed."
Nor does this figure include those who have stopped looking actively for work or are self-employed, she said.
But overall, there are positive signs the economy is recovering, officials said -- for instance, an uptick in construction.
"We are now in an upswing. People are hiring," Chaffee said. Of the 20 main industries in the region, 12 are looking for workers, she said. The largest number of jobs being added is in manufacturing and construction.
Officials are seeing a shift, however, in the skills and training that are needed.
For an increasing number of manufacturing jobs, it's no longer possible to be hired with minimal skills, Chaffee said. "You have to have at least some type of degree.
"There is a shortage of skilled, qualified workers," agreed Cathy Baumgartner, workforce development supervisor for the region. Efforts are under way to address this with more training, she said.
But a longer-term cause for concern is what Chaffee described as a demographic sandwich: a concentration of the young and old in Kandiyohi County and substantially fewer in the prime working years, from the mid-20s to mid-40s.
Large numbers of baby boomers are beginning to retire, and there's a shortage of younger workers to succeed them, Chaffee said. "When that hits, it's going to hit hard."
Planning for the impact of demographic change on the workforce will be critical, said County Commissioner Harlan Madsen.
"We've got to coordinate and communicate," he said.
The need to attract and keep younger workers is likely to accelerate in upcoming years, he said. "We're just on the front end of this."