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Workforce summit held in Willmar to help businesses recruit and retain

A summit on workforce solutions was held in Willmar on Thursday. It brought together dozens of business leaders, human resource professionals and others to learn about labor statistics, diversity and inclusion and how to better set up workplaces to attract the best workforce.

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Dozens of people from area businesses, non-profits and governments attended the 2022 Workforce Solutions Summit at the Willmar Conference Center on Jan. 20, 2022. In addition to hearing presentations, summit participants also had time to network and talk with each other about the challenges and opportunities they are seeing.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The world and its workforce have changed dramatically over the past several years and employers need to change right along with them. That was the overall message at the Workforce Solutions Summit held Thursday in Willmar.

Sponsored and produced by a partnership of several regional economic development and community organizations, the summit brought dozens from the surrounding business area to the Willmar Communty Center. There were presentations on labor market trends, diversifying and creating more inclusive workforces, and also on how to face the growing challenges of finding and keeping employees.

Labor in numbers

Luke Greiner, regional labor market analyst from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, shared employment data from the last couple of years both at the state level and in Kandiyohi County . He didn't hide the fact that there wasn't a lot of good news or trends, at least in the short term, in regard to the available labor pool. He said many of the job sectors — health care, education, food service and retail — are still trying to replace the workers they cut or lost in the early days of the pandemic on top of adding more positions to meet demand.

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Luke Greiner, regional labor market analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, dived into recent labor statistics at the Workforce Solutions Summit in Willmar on Jan. 20, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud /West Central Tribune

Adding to that, sectors such as health care and education were already understaffed prior to March 2020.

"All these sectors are screaming for workers," Greiner said. "But they can't recapture what they lost."

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And a big reason why the jobs aren't being filled is the smaller pool of unemployed workers. Greiner said there is fewer than one applicant for every job.

Many workers who became unemployed during the pandemic have decided not to rejoin the workforce. That is especially true for the 55 and over demographic. While they might eventually come back from early retirement, depending on their financial situations and for other reasons, currently they haven't not been flocking back to job market.

"They are 'see you, bye'" Greiner said. "And I can't blame them."

Recruitment and retention in a new market

It is definitely a buyers market, where job seekers hold the upper hand over employers desperate to fill vacancies.

"That is a huge shift," Greiner said. "We don't have systems in place to address that."

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Mike Henke, workforce solutions strategist, was the keynote speaker at the 2022 Workforce Solutions Summit in Willmar on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. He spoke about the challenges facing employers and they might solve them in a different and difficult job market.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

To find good workers and keep them, many employers are trying to sweeten the compensation pot. Wages have been growing significantly in many sectors, but the recent economic situation with growing inflation has been reducing the impact of those wage increases.

"To be an employer of choice you are going to have to exceed inflation," Greiner said.

Other job benefits, like parental leave, schedule flexibility, work from home ability and more even creative options, are starting to become more important to job seekers. Just having competitive wages isn't enough.

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"The workforce has completely changed," said Mike Henke, an innovative workforce solutions strategist who was the keynote speaker at the summit. "It is just different. You are going to need a new playbook."

And for many workers, especially millennials and younger, money isn't even the top reason they accept or stay with a company. Employees want to work for a business that gives back to its workforce and community and offers room for personal and professional growth.

"It all comes down to your culture," Henke said. "Culture and morale drives everything."

Diversity, inclusion and equity

Another important aspect of today's workforce is being as inclusive and diverse as possible. According to demographic trends, minorities will continue to grow into a bigger part of the population as a whole.

"The only group that is going to decrease is the white, non-Hispanic group," said Della Ludwig, workforce strategy consultant with DEED. "Diversity is huge within our area. You already know that, you are probably one of the leaders."

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Della Ludwig, workforce strategy consultant with DEED, presents on diversity, equity and inclusion at the Workforce Solutions Summit in Willmar on Jan. 20, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud /West Central Tribune

Diversity doesn't just mean someone's race or country of origin. There are many different categories — from gender and sexual orientation to people with disabilities or veterans.

"This is what we are looking at. To be able to tell our community we are diverse and this is how we are diverse," Ludwig said.

An employer can help improve and support their diverse workforce by researching and collecting data, creating goals for the company and finding the right people to meet those diversity and inclusive goals. Having a blind application process, such as not knowing where a person is from or other personal information, or opening the job to less traditional populations like those out of jail or prison, can help employers hire a more diverse workforce.

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"Be transparent and educate. Develop strong cultures that are inclusive and educate and train your team," Ludwig said.

Summit thoughts

For the final hour of the summit, the participants broke into smaller groups and discussed recruitment, retention, diversity and inclusion, and training and development. They shared challenges and ideas on how to solve those challenges.

Many groups shared ideas on how to create a better work culture and make those important in person connections with workers. That could mean having timely feedback discussions, offering creative benefits like a prayer room or showing employees they are appreciated.

"The small stuff is big," said Bridget Paulsen from Central Minnesota Jobs and Training. "The little incentives, the thank-yous, 'I appreciate you.'"

While it might take a lot of work and out of the box thinking to successfully navigate this very different job market and to keep employees in a highly competitive market, in the long run it will be worth it, at least to the people who attended the summit.

"In a world with limited resources, you get way more bang for your buck with on-boarding and retention than you do with an outstanding recruiting program," said Nate Reuss from the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. "We have heard that time and time again."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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