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County’s unemployment rate sinks after major hike in 2009

A Lakeshirts employee helps to create the massive amount of T-shirts embroidered at the company. Photo by Brian Basham

The unemployment bump that Becker County saw from the Great Recession appears to be completely gone — February’s (seasonally unadjusted) unemployment rate of 7.5 percent is lower than the 7.6 percent rate in February of 2008, before the financial meltdown that rocked the country.

Becker County’s unemployment rate shot up to 11.4 percent in February of 2009, and has been on a slow mend since then: 10.2 percent in February of 2010; 9.3 percent in February of 2011; and 8.1 percent last February.

Becker County’s current (unadjusted) unemployment rate of 7.5 percent compares to 10.4 percent in Hubbard County, 7.4 percent in Otter Tail County, 6.9 percent in Mahnomen County and 5 percent in Clay County.

The statewide unemployment rate for Minnesota is at 6 percent (5.5 percent seasonally adjusted). The national rate is 8.1 percent (7.7 percent seasonally adjusted).

But even in the darkest of economic times, Becker County actually expanded its labor market, employing somewhere between 16,000 to 18,000 workers, depending on the season, according to Kyle Kieselhorst, a counselor with the Minnesota Work Force Center in Detroit Lakes.

Summers are a natural business boom for the area, as lakes and summer recreation pull in enough seasonal residents and tourists to at times double or triple Detroit Lakes’ population, as well as many of its bedroom communities.

Kieselhorst says although restaurants may have suffered slightly through the recession, the tourism industry as a whole has weathered the economic storm just fine.

“And that’s probably because when things go slow, people who would maybe go on destination vacations further away traveled closer to home, so we got a lot of people from Fargo, the Twin Cities and places like that,” said Kieselhorst.

But even when tourism cools down, local manufacturing stays hot.

“We have a lot of manufacturing in Detroit Lakes, and it is doing very well right now,” said Kieselhorst, adding that metal manufacturing is growing particularly fast.

Major manufacturing employers like BTD, Friesens, TEAM Industries, Snappy, SJE-Rhombus and others are constantly looking for talented manufacturing professionals, as are several smaller shops in the area.

Welders, machine operators, quality assurance workers, parts tenders, and designers are hot, local commodities as the industry not only expands, but evolves.

“It’s not manufacturing like it used to be when it had a reputation for being dirty and dark and real physically demanding labor, it’s not now,” said Kieselhorst, “It’s a high tech industry that for the most part is very technical.  Now you need people with computer and technical skills to perform in this field, and there’s a lack of those folks.”

Kieselhorst adds that because of this, many are able to find competitive wages and tremendous opportunities within the field.

Lakeshirts in Detroit Lakes has also expanded its workforce recently, many of those jobs going to production as it has also grown to become a source for collegiate apparel nationwide.

Another industry that continues to add jobs in the area is health care.

Although changes in facility ownership have made for employment fluctuations, experts say the field continues to expand.

“We still see hiring there for LPNs, RNs, CNAs, and they even offer on-site training and hire their own CNAs,” said Kelley Nowell, team leader for Rural Minnesota CEP, “and with the nursing homes in close vicinity, there’s a lot of need for that.”

Nowell adds that supporting roles in health care such as massage therapists, home health aides and personal care attendants are also increasing.

Now, Detroit Lakes is also on board with a national program that is designed to help both the employee and the employer find the best person for each job.

The Minnesota WorkForce Center Rural Minnesota CEP is working with National Career Readiness Certificate program to assess and build employee skills and help employers find the best man or woman for the job in the pool of applicants.

Job seekers or those working towards promotions can take the free online classes and tests to attain a bronze, silver, gold or platinum skill rating in their area of expertise.

This helps employers find the most qualified applicants and helps employees advance their skills, no matter where they’re coming from in the U.S.

“This is not just a Minnesota thing, not just a Detroit Lakes thing. It’s national for certifying work skills,” Nowell said.

Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes also works hand-in-hand with some of the community’s top employers, offering programs that cor-relate with the growing industries.

Article written by Nathan Bowe and Paula Quam