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Job seekers outnumber openings in the region, data show

WILLMAR -- Job seekers in west-central Minnesota outnumber job openings 8-to-1, a new analysis has found.

The statistics were released Tuesday by the Jobs Now Coalition on the heels of the state's latest job vacancy survey.

Kevin Ristau of the Jobs Now Coalition doesn't see these numbers improving any time soon.

"For serious recovery here, we're not talking months, we're talking years," he said.

The coalition developed its analysis using the most recent employment data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The numbers are current for the second quarter of 2009, April through June.

In the southwest central region of the state, which includes Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker and Renville counties, there are 5,800 unemployed workers competing for only 700 unfilled jobs.

The ratio is only slightly better in the Upper Minnesota Valley region -- 1,800 workers and 260 unfilled jobs. This region consists of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties.

Two years ago, the ratio of job seekers to job openings in the four west-central counties was 2-to-1, Ristau said. Since then, the number of job seekers has risen 80 percent, while job openings have fallen by 50 percent.

Where are most of the job openings? Sixty percent are concentrated in just one category, that of food preparation and service -- "mostly waiters and waitresses," Ristau said.

The fact that restaurants in the four counties are still hiring workers is "the good news," he said. "The bad news is there doesn't seem to be much else."

The analysis found few openings for people looking for jobs in retail or office administrative support, two groups that usually are in need of workers. In the manufacturing sector, hardly anyone is hiring, Ristau said. "That's true just about all over the state."

Of even greater concern is the quality of the jobs available, Ristau said.

The median wage for all the job openings in the region is $8 an hour. Research by the Jobs Now Coalition on the cost of living in west-central Minnesota shows that in order for a family of four to get by, both parents need to be working and earning at least $11.99 an hour.

Statewide, the ratio of job seekers to job openings is 7 to 1, but the crunch is more severe in some areas of the state than others. In northeastern Minnesota's Arrowhead region, for instance, there are 12 job seekers for every opening available.

Counties along the western border of Minnesota seem to be faring slightly better, possibly because their economies were already pared down during the upheaval of the farm crisis in the 1980s, Ristau said.

In the Upper Minnesota Valley Region, the gap between the number of job seekers and the number of job openings is less wide than in neighboring counties just to the east. But the five-county region still has seen a 70 percent rise in the number of job seekers and a 39 percent drop in the number of job openings within the past two years.

Nearly half of all job openings in the five-county region offer only part-time work.

It's likely going to take outside help to restore the region's labor force to pre-recession levels, Ristau said.

"Policymakers are going to have to face up to the fact that we will need some sort of emergency jobs program," he said. "I think it's going to become more evident as time goes on. This is not just a little dip in the business cycle here. It's worse than that."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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