Neal St. Anthony
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The No. 1 lament of Minnesota employers has seemingly moved from taxes to finding trainable workers.

It sure beats the Great Recession layoffs and losses of 2008-’09. The state unemployment rate has dropped to 3.8 percent, record numbers of people are working, wages are rising modestly and employers are comparing notes on how to find and retain people.

“In the near term, we expect that Minnesota will be over 250,000 workers short of the employees we need within five years,” said Schwan Foods executive Scott Peterson, who is active in state training initiatives. “This gap is primarily driven by the expectation that our economy is expected to grow faster than our labor supply. In addition to the raw numbers gap, there is a skill mismatch. Many employers say they cannot fill positions due to an inability to find workers with the skills or experience they need.”

Stephanie Pleasant, a personnel manager with UPS, said the company is hiring part-time high school students for heavy shifts, offering up to $25,000 in tuition reimbursement, good benefits and using a promote-from-within strategy to retain and attract.

“No drug tests,” said Pleasant, who started out like most UPS employees, handling freight. “We look for people who will work hard. And who want to advance. Drivers, logistics people, package handlers.”

The hunt is on for prospects in the state’s “hidden talent” pools, also the topic of a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce conference last week. That includes out-of-work baby boomers, dislocated workers, the undereducated and former prison inmates.

The state’s labor participation rate among working-age people is 69.3 percent, third best in the country. Still, even employing 10 percent of that number means thousands of additional economy-growing jobs, more breadwinners and less drain on unemployment insurance and public assistance.

Employers are looking to outfits such as Minncor Industries. The Roseville-based contract manufacturer trains and employes prisoners for in-prison and after-prison industry careers. Many seek employment upon release, but employers historically have been shy to hire ex-convicts.

Minncor has helped former felons land good-paying jobs in welding, design, engineering, carpentry and machining. It has provided bus cards, steel-toed boots and more to “try and take away some barriers to employment,” said Minncor business developer Michael Hreha.

Other nonprofits, such as Resource, MDI, and International Institute of Minnesota, work with recent immigrants who need help becoming proficient in English and workplace customs. Others are dealing with disabilities or mental health issues.

Since 2015, 600 technical workers who lack computer degrees have founds jobs paying an average of nearly $50,000 with the help of training from groups such as MSP TechHire. A disproportionate percentage of those workers are women and minorities. Similarly, employment of minorities is growing faster than the overall rate of growth in recent years in the construction, IT and health care industries.

“Racial disparities also continue to persist with respect to employment, with the labor force participation rate for people of color well below that of the white population,” Peterson said. “The bottom line is this worker shortage will constrain economic growth and prosperity for our region.”

The Itasca Project last year launched RealTime Talent. Its software helps employers, educators and trainers match up with applicants statewide, and the group is also helping technical schools and trainers focus on the most in-demand occupations.

The Minnesota Chamber, a RealTime partner, is hosting what’s called MN Job Match at mnchamber.com/grow/mn-job-match.

“[The challenge] is more than a talent imperative,” Peterson said. “It is a prosperity imperative, and an approach that aligns the efforts of employers, higher education, public sector and philanthropy.”

Last week, the chamber and partners shined a spotlight on two people who emerged from hidden labor pools.

One was Nancy Lynn Martinez, who fled an abusive home at 11, sold drugs and was in jail by age 21. She was inspired by people in prison industries. She learned machining skills at the Shakopee Correctional Facility and obtained an industry job several years ago. She was recruited to teach the trade to students at St. Paul College. She also advocates for prison education initiatives.

Another was Aaron Corcoran, who has cerebral palsy and was completing a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs a couple of years ago. He didn’t have a job, but he possessed analytical and technical skills. One of his mentors, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, teaches at the Humphrey school, and he helped Corcoran start a career.

Corcoran is a consultant and “super user” of the RealTime Talent computer program. He matches applicants with jobs for clients such as Youthlink, which houses and helps homeless youth, and Somali immigrants at the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center.

“Aaron’s a great asset, not only to this neighborhood, but to the state of Minnesota,” said Mohamed Ali, a supervisor at the center.

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