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At the Bluefin Bay family of resorts in Tofte, Minn., workers racked up a record 18,000 hours of overtime last year.

Short at least a dozen full-time employees and other seasonal help, about 140 staffers — roughly a third of them temporary international workers — slogged through long shifts to keep things running.

“We’ve been going all out,” said owner Dennis Rysdahl. “Whatever it takes.”

Bad as it was, he expects this year will only get worse. With unemployment near or at record lows in many states and intense competition for foreign worker visas throughout the country, Rysdahl and other business owners on Lake Superior’s North Shore are embarking on a new campaign to find and train untapped domestic prospects — starting with residents who fled hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Dubbed “Plan B,” the effort also aims at recruiting underemployed rural workers and students in small-town high schools, as well as developing plans to start a culinary school program on the North Shore.

“Instead of passively accepting what Washington decides will be our fate with labor, let’s try to do something different and try to take our fate into our own hands,” said Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the project. “We can’t continue to rely strictly on the visa programs … we just really needed to look for something else.”

Thinking outside the box

Businesses in Cook County, which encompasses Minnesota’s northeasternmost tip, hire more than 400 international workers each year. Students come on cultural-exchange internships visas for up to four months. Others come as temporary workers, helping to fill seasonal demands for up to 10 months at a time. They work as housekeepers at resorts, cooks and dishwashers in restaurants, and maintenance staff at tourist attractions.

But competition for their labor is becoming increasingly fierce nationwide. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that applications for nonagricultural seasonal worker visas had more than tripled from a year ago, skyrocketing from 26,673 positions on Jan. 1, 2017 to a record 81,008 positions this year. The semiannual allocation is only 33,000.

Congress needs to approve a higher allotment, Minneapolis immigration attorney Loan Huynh said, “because it’s going to be a fiasco. It’s going to be detrimental to a lot of companies and industries if they cannot find workers here.”

North Shore tourism-based business owners have had an increasingly difficult time finding help.

“Employers up here have always looked for locals to work in our industry, but there’s just a small group,” said Clair Nalezny, general manager of Lutsen Resort. “And we have a lot of businesses up here.”

Huynh praised Cook County’s efforts to find alternatives, especially among Puerto Rican residents who are U.S. citizens and are already cleared to work, she said. Many were forced to flee Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria, one of the worst natural disasters in the island’s history, struck in September.

“I think with the hurricane and their displacement, it’s a natural source of workforce opportunity,” she said. “I applaud them for making that decision.”

The Cook County chamber hired staffing recruiter Shawn Kerfoot to make the connections.

“We’re trying to come up with some ideas and think outside the box [about] how we can help make everybody happy,” said Kerfoot, who grew up along the Gunflint Trail as the daughter of resort owners.

Her first move was reaching out to organizations managing hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans, many of whom fled to Florida and were settled in hotel rooms, transitional sheltering assistance provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But reaching the storm refugees hasn’t been easy, she said, as many are still living without access to computers or even phones.

Kerfoot worked with a Puerto Rican office in Florida to hang and distribute fliers seeking housekeepers, servers, front desk and maintenance workers. The fliers advertise “BEAUTIFUL NORTHERN MINNESOTA” and list hourly wages ranging from $10.50 to $14 with some tipped positions, and housing available onsite or nearby for just $325 to $375 a month. The fliers include photos of the available apartments and the picturesque shoreline. (In the spirit of keeping things honest, one of the photos includes a snowy winter scene.)

“Basically, what I’m trying to do is get the word out as fast as I can,” Kerfoot said. Some companies will help with moving expenses, she said, and some will accept couples or even families. “We’re keeping our minds pretty open to who can apply.”

Graduates, underemployed

Kerfoot is also talking with high school superintendents in the hopes of piquing the interest of graduating students who are not immediately headed to college and don’t want to leave small-town life. They are good candidates, she said, for working on the North Shore.

Advertisements Kerfoot has placed in small-town newspapers are aimed at them, as well as rural residents who might be underemployed or working more than one part-time job to make ends meet. Competition has driven up wages for service industry jobs in the northern part of the state, making a move more attractive.

“Our average wages are significantly higher and we have need for a lot of full-time people and we offer health care and other benefits,” Rysdahl pointed out.

Kerfoot is already in the process of making a few hires after placing the first ad two weeks ago.

A third strategy — though one less developed — for luring workers to the area calls for exploring the potential of starting a culinary school in Cook County, leaders said.

A few culinary schools in Minnesota have closed recently, leaving fewer graduates to court. Local business leaders think that by offering a less-expensive culinary education on the North Shore and work experience in the field, they could attract potential chefs just starting out.

The Cook County high school in Grand Marais will soon undergo some renovations for a culinary arts teaching space, and leaders are hoping to put that space to use for higher education, too.

Place to call home

While a worker shortage is the most pressing problem, business leaders along Lake Superior also know they need to address a shortage of affordable housing for the workers they find. While some resorts have been adding bunkhouse or apartment-style rooms, providing enough space for seasonal workers, the shortage is more pronounced for those who would be employed year-round.

The local Economic Development Authority is constructing some single-family workforce housing, and an area businessman has rehabbed some cabins that will provide low-income housing.

“We have 47 units of workforce housing and low-income housing that will come online within the next year,” said Boyd, of the Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it begins to make a big dent in it.”

While providing housing is a priority, he said, business owners first need to make sure they can find staff. Which is where Plan B, a project other civic leaders in the state are watching, comes in.

“It’s just really an experiment to see if we can identify pockets of workers who might be interested in coming here and being employees,” Boyd said.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102