Neal St. Anthony
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The growth of Horizon Roofing has been restrained in recent years by a lack of workers willing to labor outdoors in all temperatures for beginning wages of $16 to $20 an hour.

Owner Kurt Scepaniak, whose father started the business in 1976, said he spent $100,000 in online employment and billboard ads a couple of years ago and still couldn’t find enough talent.

“Last year, we peaked at about 95 employees,” Scepaniak said. “We could have used 105.”

Scepaniak also in 2017 launched an in-house training program that he believes will help meet customer orders and boost growth. The program costs an estimated $125,000 yearly, including a full-time trainer.

Prospects train for seven days at Horizon’s operations in Brooklyn Center and Waite Park, near St. Cloud.

“I think we’ll need 125 to 130” workers during the spring-to-fall outdoor season, Scepaniak said. “We need good workers, willing to work in the elements. Usually, it’s 45 hours a week, some weeks more. We have all races — white, black, Hispanic — mostly men, but we’re hiring more women. They tend to be very detail-oriented and that’s appealing.

“People seem to learn faster during [the initial seven-day training for newcomers] than in the traditional on-the-job training. We see people who learn in seven days what can take six months in on-the-job training. Sometimes, you can have a foreman or second-in-charge trying to train on the job … and their job is to focus on a quality project in time and at a profit. This makes us better and more productive.’’

The training also helps mismatched applicants cut themselves if they aren’t right for roofing work, which can pay up to $100,000 a year including overtime pay for the most skilled, veteran workers and foremen. Horizon also offers health insurance, a 401(k) plan, vacation “and some other things we do to sweeten the compensation,” including family events.

Scepaniak said Horizon has grown sales over the past year by “nearly 200 percent” to $19 million last year, and it could have been more in an economy marked by building and employers investing in plants and equipment.

“We try to work year-round,” he said. “It may slow down a bit because of Mother Nature, but we try to keep everyone employed.

“I started roofing at 12 in the family business,” Scepaniak said. “It’s some of the toughest work in construction. We mostly do flat roofs of metal, rubber and thermoplastics. We do new construction, including laying up the insulation, laying out the membranes, the detail work, as well as maintenance and repair of sheet metal work.”

Scepaniak is one of a growing legion of employers who have embraced training programs and apprenticeships in a Minnesota economy hungry for workers.

Last week, Minnesota’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.2 percent, compared to 4.1 percent nationally, the lowest Minnesota rate since 2000. The state basically is at full employment, with most of the increases coming from new workers and those re-entering the labor force.

The tight labor market “translates into improving job opportunities for those who have struggled to find work in the past,” said Commissioner Shawntera Hardy of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

The estimate for the 12-month average of black unemployment fell from 7.4 percent in January to a new low of 6.9 percent in February. Similarly, the unemployment rate for Latinos fell from 4 percent to 3.3 percent over the month.

Economists said Minnesota’s tight labor market has made it hard for manufacturers, construction firms and repair-service firms to fill job vacancies and replace departing retirees. Minorities are the fastest growing component of the labor force, and retirees are being lured out of the house to make an extra buck or two.

Some employers, employer associations and cooperating unions are working jointly to expand the labor pool. A host of Twin Cities nonprofit trainers, including Project for Pride in Living, Twin Cities Rise, Emerge and Summit Academy, train the underemployed, help with GEDs and job certifications, and place graduates with employers in financial services, health care, construction and more. Some graduates are rebounding from addictions or criminal backgrounds. The training is funded by fees, private philanthropy and government grants.

Also, the growing Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative (MAI), jointly run by DEED and the Department of Labor and Industry, offers grants to assist private employers with the cost of developing apprenticeship programs. Employers can receive up to $5,000 for each apprentice to help cover costs.

MAI seeks to help 100-plus employers develop apprenticeship programs to recruit, train and retrain 1,000 new apprentices in advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care services, information technology and transportation.

Last week, Agco launched an apprenticeship program at its Jackson, Minn., tractor manufacturing plant to train long-sought mechanics and welders. The program, funded partly by MAI, will start with four apprentices and grow to 20, officials said.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.