Employers flock to Alexandria area job fair

The crunch for workers continues, employers say.

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Nursing student Sophie Thompson, right, speaks to Matthew Wolbersen, a job recruiter for Alomere Health, during the annual Alexandria Area Job Fair. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

ALEXANDRIA — Employers who set up booths Wednesday, Feb. 1 at the Alexandria Area Job Fair sounded a similar theme: Times have changed.

"It has definitely been a 360," said Hannah Doherty, a human resources official for Douglas Machine in Alexandria.

"It's a shopping environment now," said Reid Nelson, human resources manager for Polar Tank Trailer in Holdingford. "Shopping for employers instead of the other way around."

Not that many years ago, they could count on multiple qualified candidates for each open job. Doherty recalled a time when one opening would attract 30 applicants. That's not true anymore, and many of the employers at the job fair said they have raised wages, offered bonuses and additional training, and taken other steps to attract more workers.

Pete Lewis, operations manager for Mayo Construction Company, drove four hours from Cavalier, North Dakota, trying to round up workers for the upcoming road paving season.


"I hired 88 new people last year and 83 of them quit within a month," he said. His line of work offers good pay — $50,000 to $70,000 for less than half a year of work — but it's also physically demanding with long hours. He thinks people believe they can do the job and find out that their bodies can't take it — or they would rather work where they can hit the beach on weekends.

In Douglas County, the unemployment rate was 3.1% in December. That means that of every 100 workers, just over three were unemployed and were looking for work. It's a pretty low rate, and employers reported having quite a few unfilled position. At Douglas Machine, there are about 80 unfilled spots, Doherty said. At Alomere Health, it's around 50.

Grant County sent a pair of recruiters to the job fair.

"This is our first one ever because we've never had this issue of not being able to find help," said Records Dispatch Superviser Tina McGrath. They need a dispatcher, two deputies, an engineer and two heavy equipment operators.

ServPro of Otter Tail and Douglas Counties has 25 employees but would like 30 to 35, said Production Manager Marv Mackedanz. Their business is cleaning up property after disasters like fires and broken water pipes. Their crews are stretched thin, and they sometimes send out two workers where they would like to send three or four. Sometimes their workers work late, or even overnight, because turning down business is not an option.

"One of our policies is not to say no to a customer because they're in need," Mackedanz said. "They're standing in water or their house has just burned down."

Dave Lamb, training and recruitment administrator for Aagard, said the labor shortage did not take his company by surprise. Their business consultant, Enterprise Minnesota, had been telling them for 15 years that a workforce crunch was coming.

"Five years ago we started to see the first signs of the shortage and decided we better do something about it," he said. That's when Aagard started working with high schools to encourage students to choose a manufacturing career.


Despite the planning, Aagard is still dealing with a tight labor market, and he was at the job fair to recruit prospective employees.

"We have more open positions than qualified candidates," he said.

You might think that the labor shortage would leave workers feeling powerful, but it depends on the situation.

Sophie Thompson of Miltona, who will graduate with her RN degree in May, said she is finding that there is less availability at clinics for RNs than LPNs versus the hospital and nursing homes. She also isn't as flexible as some of her fellow students. She is nearly 30, with school-age children, and she wants to find a day shift that will allow her to coordinate with their schedules. But those day shifts are pretty coveted positions.

"If you were freshly out of school, and have more flexibility, then you have the upper hand," she said.

Editor's note: The last two paragraphs of this story have been edited to clarify the comments made by Sophie Thompson.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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