REDWOOD FALLS - Never has the optimism for future economic growth been greater than what the executives of manufacturing companies expressed this year in the 10th annual survey conducted for Enterprise Minnesota.

And never in those 10 years has a shortage of qualified workers figured so prominently as a factor that could impede future growth.

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"The worker shortage is giving health care costs a run for the money," Bob Kill, executive director of Enterprise Minnesota, said Tuesday in Redwood Falls during a presentation about the annual State of Manufacturing survey.

In one of several planned regional presentations, Kill outlined the results of the 2018 survey of Minnesota's manufacturers to an audience of economic development representatives and manufacturers from the 18 counties served by the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

In each of the past 10 years, Enterprise Minnesota has taken the pulse of the manufacturing economy in the state with a survey to executives at companies small and large. The last few years have seen a steady rise in optimism. Kill said 93 percent of the 400 executives surveyed this year expressed confidence in their companies' prospects.

Two-thirds said 2018 will be a year for economic expansion, or nearly twice the number of just two years ago, Kill said.

From the survey's start, the executives have always cited the cost of health care as their chief concern. "While health care costs remain the top concern, the quality workforce shortage is seen as now the biggest impediment to future growth," Kill said. Attracting and retaining qualified workers was the top concern listed by 48 percent of the respondents.

Five panelists, three from private industry and two from the public sector, joined Kill in discussing the issues facing manufacturers. Attracting and retaining workers was a dominant theme.

There's growing interest in reviving technical education programs in high schools and exposing young students to technical career opportunities. In Hutchinson, Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden said the district has been offering a Tiger Paths program in which students select a path for their future studies at the end of eighth grade. One of the paths includes technical careers. The school has invested in offering a broader curriculum on those opportunities.

In the five rural counties of the Upper Minnesota River Valley, the worker challenge has led to a campaign to promote the region as a great place to live and raise a family. Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties are very rural. Many of the young, potential workers the region hopes to attract are entirely unfamiliar with it, according to panelist Dawn Hegland, executive director of the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission.

"Get Rural" is a community-based strategy to promote the region's attributes that was born of the concern about recruiting workers, she explained. Along with promotions, it also includes informing employers about the importance of being versed on what their communities offer so they can address those issues with potential recruits.

Doing what it takes to be the "employer of choice'' for their areas is the strategy that is making it possible for some companies to attract the workers they need for growth. Bedford Industries, of Worthington, is adding 110,000 square feet to its manufacturing facility and could be adding as many as 65 new jobs to its workforce of over 300, according to Marty Rickers, strategic partnerships manager with the company. He said the company's culture, emphasis on innovation and competitive wages help make it the employer of choice.

Doing what it takes to attract and retain workers is likely to remain a prominent issue for employers in manufacturing for years to come, according to Kill. One of the sobering statistics pointed out to manufacturing executives - by way of a question in the survey - is that there are expected to be 60,000 to 280,000 unfilled jobs in Minnesota in the next five years.