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Marshall area job market ‘has its ups and downs’

Jobless rates average 3.2% in 2019; employers face challenges

Photo by Deb Gau Machinist Brandon DeVries prepared to use a lathe at Marshall Machine Shop on Friday. Doug Anderson, of Marshall Machine Shop, said over the past several years it’s been harder for manufacturers and contractors to recruit and hire skilled employees.

MARSHALL — Last year, the number of people unemployed and looking for work in the U.S. hit a 50-year low. And while unemployment rates in the Marshall area actually went up in 2019, they still weren’t out of step with the low national rates, data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) said.

Lower unemployment rates might sound like a good thing, but local employers also say they face challenges trying to recruit new employees.

“It’s hard to find talent” when there are too few people applying for jobs, said Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce president Brad Gruhot.

In September, the U.S. unemployment rate went down to 3.5%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. That rate was the nation’s lowest since 1969.

The Marshall micropolitan statistical area, which includes Lyon County, also had an unemployment rate of 3.5% in December, according to data from DEED. The average unemployment rate for 2019 was 3.2%. However, the data said those rates weren’t adjusted for seasonal changes in employment.

The number of people who are employed tends to fluctuate over the course of a year, said Steve Davis, professor of agribusiness management and economics at Southwest Minnesota State University. In the Marshall area, those changes could be partly from seasonal jobs, like in agriculture, construction or retail, or changes in the number of employees looking for work. For example, there tends to be more young people looking for jobs each year in the fall, while they’re attending SMSU.

The public data available on DEED’s website only includes seasonally-adjusted unemployment information at the state and national level.

Lyon County’s annual average unemployment rate for 2019 was also at 3.2%. That rate was lower than for surrounding counties, DEED data said. Average unemployment was 3.8% for Lincoln, Redwood and Yellow Medicine Counties. Murray County’s average unemployment was 4.3%.

In 2019, the annual average unemployment rate in Lyon County was up from the previous year. The 2018 average unemployment rate was 2.9% — the county’s lowest since 2000, according to DEED data.

“The local market has its ups and downs, but we continue to have strong employment,” Davis said.

Within the past 20 years, Lyon County’s highest average unemployment rate was in 2009, at 5.8% The county had greater than 5% unemployment for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

“There was definitely more unemployment” in southwest Minnesota during that time period, Davis said.

While unemployment did go up in the Marshall area in 2019, it might not be a negative thing for businesses, said Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce president Brad Gruhot. Previous unemployment rates — down closer to 2% in the summer of 2018 — were “way too low,” he said.

Businesses in the Marshall area are feeling the effects when they try to hire employees, Gruhot said. “They’re just recruiting from each other right now.”

Gruhot said it’s not just one sector of local businesses having difficulty finding new hires. It’s everything from agriculture to manufacturing and health care.

“We certainly are facing the shortage of people who want to work,” especially over the past couple of years, said Sonya Kayser, human resources officer at Avera Marshall Medical Center. Kayser said the shortage was mostly affecting entry-level jobs. In trying to recruit, Avera Marshall has to compete with other businesses who are also looking to fill entry-level service jobs, she said.

“Our CDL types of businesses are having a really hard time getting drivers,” Gruhot said. In the case of commercial drivers, he said, hiring is also affected by factors like restrictive regulations for getting a commercial driver’s license.

Davis said factors beyond the availability of jobs can also affect unemployment levels. The availability of housing in the area where you work is an important factor, he said.

Some local employers said changes in the workforce and education over the past several years have made it harder to find skilled job applicants.

“There’s a massive shortage of tradesmen everywhere,” said Scott Williams, of Bisbee Plumbing and Heating. Doug Anderson, of Marshall Machine Shop, also said it’s a widespread problem.

“You can talk to any contractor in town,” and hear that there isn’t enough skilled labor, Anderson said.

Anderson said part of the problem was that schools have shifted away from teaching industrial arts classes. Now there are fewer potential metalworkers, machinists and others with needed skills.

“It starts with the schools,” Williams said. Schools need to be willing to encourage students to go into technical trades, he said. Williams said Bisbee Plumbing and Heating also works to recruit potential employees. He said they participate in a job fair in Windom, because it gives them a chance to interact with the kids who could become future employees.

Kayser said Avera Marshall has also developed relationships with local schools, to interest students in a career in health care.

“We get a lot of students who come in to job shadow,” she said. Many are interested in becoming Registered Nurses. Kaysen said Avera Marshall has also started offering potential employees more flexible training programs, like the OnTrack nursing assistant training program.

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