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Area businesses feel pinch of low unemployment

WILLMAR -- Free candy, travel mugs and a variety of company-embossed swag were used to lure potential employees to business booths during a March 22 job fair at the Willmar Conference Center."A lot of employers are pulling out all the stops to fi...

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Nearly 70 vendors were at the West Central Minnesota Area Job Fair last week in Willmar. CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE

WILLMAR - Free candy, travel mugs and a variety of company-embossed swag were used to lure potential employees to business booths during a March 22 job fair at the Willmar Conference Center.
“A lot of employers are pulling out all the stops to find good talent to add to their team,” said Barb Staebell, who works in human resources for Mediacom and had a booth at the job fair.
With a statewide unemployment rate holding steady at 3.7 percent and starting salaries that have been nudging the $14- to $15-an-hour rate, businesses in all sectors are competing for workers.
“It’s a competition but it’s a friendly competition,” said Amy Renneke from the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, who was looking for a “new generation” of employees to join the Renville company.
There were 67 booths at the West Central Minnesota Area Job Fair, including 60 businesses.
Only one other year in the fair’s 12-year history has there been that many businesses at the twice-a-year event, said Doug Hanson, from KDJS, The River and K95 Radio, which co-sponsored the event with Ridgewater College, the Workforce Center and the Kandiyohi County and the city of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
“That’s telling me that there’s lot of business people that need help,” Hanson said.
“It’s a tighter market. Absolutely,” Staebell said.  
The low unemployment rate in the Kandiyohi County area means it’s tougher for businesses to find employees, said Cathy Baumgartner, from the Workforce Center’s Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Service in Willmar.
“We do see a little bit of a crunch,” Baumgartner said.
The job fair drew about 216 people looking for jobs.
“It’s kind of a reversal of what we saw in 2008 where we didn’t have as many businesses here looking for qualified workers and we had a lot of job seekers,” she said. “We’re trying to get that happy medium of just the perfect match for people.”
Steve Walsh, general manager at the Mills Ford Chrysler dealership in Willmar, said they need more employees to match the growth their company is experiencing.
“With growth comes an exponential amount of people we could use,” Walsh said.
“The automotive field has a lot of growth in it right now, especially in this area, so there’s a lot of untapped potential that we’re trying to step into, especially in the town of Willmar,” Walsh said.
“Anytime there’s change, it helps the car business. Gas prices go down - people buy cars. Gas prices go up - people buy cars,” he said.
Sarah Isdal, marketing manager for Divine Home Care in Willmar, said they offer signing bonuses as a way to entice employees to the growing home health care industry.
“There’s a constant demand for new staff to fill those needs,” Isdal said.
The low unemployment rate is “good for the economy” and means there’s steady work for their construction company, said David Lamas, from Duininck Inc.
Lamas was at the job fair to recruit at least 20 heavy equipment operators and construction workers. “We’re feeling the pinch a little bit,” said Lamas, who was confident he would be able to fill the jobs, in part through connections made at the job fair.
“It’s a great base to network,” Lamas said. “You get to know the community and get to meet new people and see what skill set is out there.”
Kristi Schaffer, from Wakefield Pork in Gaylord, said the job fair was a useful place to recruit employees and people interested in available ag opportunities with the company in a region that stretched from Hector to Little Falls.
“It’s really nice to see the candidates who are looking for opportunities to either move to a different job or are looking to enter the workforce,” she said.
Several businesses said they had collected some promising resumes.
About two-thirds of the businesses at the job fair were from outside of Willmar, including Doherty Staffing Solutions, a company located in Marshall that finds temporary and temporary-to-hire employees for businesses.
“The employment pool is pretty low,” said Ryan Vesey, from Doherty, adding that the unemployment rate in the Willmar area is at about 3.1 percent.
“So there’s a little bit of a crunch there,” said Joshua Buck, also from Doherty.
Higher starting wages are also creating more competition for businesses.
According to Buck, the low end of the pay scale is now in the range of $10 to $13 per hour and that the range of $14 to $15 per hour “is where companies are really starting to get competitive to find candidates.”
Darin Balken, executive director of Prairie Lakes Youth Programs in Willmar, said in the past he did not have trouble getting employees for the 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year youth detention facility because it had higher wages than most other businesses.
Starting salary for full-time employees is $14.99 at Prairie Lakes Youth Programs, which had been high for this area in the past - but not anymore.
“Salaries of different jobs have caught up to us,” Balken said. “We might have to look at inching ours up.”
Prairie Lakes Youth Programs has had more employee turnover in the last 12 to 15 months than they have ever had.
As the job market has gotten tighter, Balken said he’s been going to job fairs to recruit the type of quality candidates the facility needs to work with kids.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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