WORTHINGTON — With "Help Wanted" signs plastered on billboards, posted at checkout counters and a bevy of advertisements published in local newspapers and online, it’s clear that businesses across Worthington and throughout southwest Minnesota are challenged to fill job vacancies.

It’s evident in government, too, with several city and county positions still seeking viable candidates for some of its higher paid positions.

“We have a labor shortage,” said Carrie Bendix, who oversees the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council in Worthington, Marshall and Montevideo. Locally, its office is within the CareerForce Center inside the Nobles County Government Center in downtown Worthington.

“We’ve had a labor shortage since before COVID, and we have some of the highest vacancy rates in the state,” Bendix added.

Bendix, who works in the 14-county region, said part of the labor shortage is the result of declining populations in this part of the state. With the exception of Nobles County, which continues to see growth due to new immigrants, all other counties in the region note a population loss — and therefore a reduction in its available workforce.

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“A lot of older people are retiring or nearing retirement age,” she said. “With COVID, that is probably playing a factor with their decision not to return to the workforce.”

Luke Greiner, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) regional analyst for southwest and central Minnesota, said Rock County had the lowest unemployment rate, at 1.9%, for the month of April in the southwest region. That compares to an unemployment rate of 3.7% among the 23 counties in the southwest region. Southwest Minnesota was second only to southeast Minnesota in April for its low unemployment rate.

April’s average unemployment rate of 3.7% (7,823 unemployed workers) for the region was down from 4.6% in March, and compares to 6.9% (15,077 unemployed workers) in April 2020, when many hospitality-related jobs were temporarily cut due to the pandemic.

A major factor in the region’s low unemployment rate is the drop in the labor force. Greiner said southwest Minnesota’s labor force dropped 5.6% from April 2019 to April 2021 (12,570 workers), which is rather severe considering the statewide decline came in at 1.7%.

What all of this means is that workers have options.

There are currently .8 job seekers for every available job in southwest Minnesota. Statewide, the rate is 1.1 job seekers for every vacancy.

“We’re back to, ‘What is it going to take to get somebody to come work for you when they’re already working for someone else?’” Greiner said. “We have this huge decline in our labor force; we don’t know yet if they’re ever coming back and we don’t know who it is — stay-at-home moms or retired workers.”

The pandemic resulted in an unknown number of working parents leaving the workforce to care for young children at home and help older children with online learning when schools were using distance and hybrid learning models.

Employers will need to address flexibility with child care, safety for employees and health care issues if they expect to lure those who don’t necessarily need a paycheck to return to the workforce, Greiner said. Meanwhile, schools also need to return to more consistent scheduling to make it possible for parents to return to work.

If it’s a retiree who has left the workforce, Greiner said phenomenal gains in the stock market, which pads an individual’s retirement, may be what gets some retired people back to work.

“The leading reason for early retirement in the country is because of health conditions, not that you can afford to retire early,” Greiner cautioned.

So what must employers do? Offer higher wages, offer incentives, offer bonuses — anything to get a potential employee in the door and encourage them to stay.

“It’s going to take some creative strategies,” Greiner said. “I’ve seen some employers offering bonuses — interview bonuses even.”

Greiner said one of the greatest issues employers are currently facing are applicants who are ghosting employers — not showing up for job interviews and not calling back when they are offered a position.

He suggests employers act quickly when they find a potential fit with an applicant.

“If you can correspond faster than your competitor, I think that’s an edge,” he said. “You’re not going to sit around and wait if there are 50 openings available.”

Greiner said available jobs in the region run the gamut from entry level to high tech. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the median wage paid in the region was $16.53 per hour, which was 6 cents per hour less than the statewide median wage.

“We’re seeing wages for job offers grow pretty quickly in southwest Minnesota,” Greiner noted. “It probably has to do with the tight labor market.”

The federal government continues to offer additional unemployment benefits to those who haven’t returned to the workforce, to the tune of $300 per month. That’s on top of the regular unemployment benefits an individual receives when they have lost their job.

Greiner said it’s difficult to say how much of an impact that additional money is having on people returning to the workforce.

“I hear a lot about that from employers,” he said, noting the $300 benefit will expire in September. “I believe employers are dealing with that. To the extent, we’re not really sure.

“Regardless of unemployment insurance benefits, we have a tight labor market,” he added.

Back in Worthington, Bendix said the CareerForce is open and people are welcome to call for assistance in their job search.

“We have funding to help people get retrained if they were laid off, and we can help pay for training,” she said. “Now is the time to do that before their unemployment runs out.”

On Thursday, the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council is collaborating with Minnesota West Community & Technical College and other partners to host a Big Ideas job fair from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the college parking lot in Worthington.