Earlier in my career, I attended an economic development conference on strategic planning.

The leader kicked off the training by saying, “It doesn’t matter how fast you’re climbing if

your ladder is on the wrong wall”. Strategy matters.


A few months back, I shared Greater Bemidji’s vision for our region – to become the state’s emerging regional center. I also shared our strategy to get there and how we will focus our effortson five key focus areas. The focus areas include supporting entrepreneurs and new business startups, encouraging hometown business growth and expansion, promoting the region to growing companies, and investing in “place-making initiatives” that improve our region’s quality of life. These were chosen specifically to move our region toward our shared vision.


Perhaps the most critical area of focus given today’s economy is the final one – to build a talented workforce. I’d like to share with you why workforce is so critical to our region’s economic growth, and what we are doing to position our region to succeed.


The Workforce Challenge: Where did all the workers go?

We are currently in the tightest labor market in recorded history. Today in our region, we estimate there is 2.5 available jobs for every person seeking employment. In other words, if every available worker in our region filled an open position, a majority of our open jobs would still be unfilled. No doubt workforce is the greatest long-term challenge facing our region’s economy.


How did we get here?

Certainly, there were short term impacts on the labor force resulting from the pandemic. People’s lives and jobs were disrupted. Retirements were higher than expected. Workers were
faced with both childcare and elder care challenges. When or whether we will return to pre- pandemic labor force participation is being debated by economists today.


While the pandemic certainly impacted the labor market, the fact is our labor forc  participation (defined as the percent of people 16 years or older in the workforce) has been
declining since the year 2000 – dropping roughly 7% over that time. Is 7% significant? If the same percent of people 16 years old plus were working today as did in 2000, there would be 2,400 more workers just in the greater Bemidji region alone. That’s a big number.


The driver in the declining workforce is an aging population. As the baby boom generation retires, there simply has not been enough population growth to make up for their exiting the
labor market. In other words, more people are leaving the labor force (primarily via retirement) than are entering the workforce. While we can’t reverse the demographic shifts  communities and economic development organizations like Greater Bemidji can and should work along the margins to ease the tight labor market. And that’s exactly what we are doing.

Greater Bemidji’s Response

Given the background provided above, clearly talent and workforce development initiatives have to be central to what we do at Greater Bemidji. To grow our economy and create broad based prosperity, we have to do all we can to welcome more people into the regional labor market.

We focus on three key areas:

  • Reducing barriers to entering the workforce;
  • Encouraging and supporting adaptive hiring practices; and,
  • Recruiting additional workers to the region.


The first way to increase the labor force participation rate is to remove barriers that prevent current residents of the region from entering the job market. One of the largest barriers is
access to childcare. Over the past several years, Greater Bemidji has worked to support our existing childcare providers as well as grow the childcare options available in the region. Most recently, we supported, via a state Department of Employment and Economic Development grant, childcare development work being done at St. Phillips and First Lutheran. We are actively working to develop childcare options in the Sanford Health/Technology Park area. While the need is large, we are trying to create childcare options, one spot at a time.


Another barrier to employment is having the skills and background to access good-paying jobs. In response, Greater Bemidji was one of the first economic development organization to launch its own training center - the Minnesota Innovation Initiative (MI2). In partnership with Bemidji State, Northwest Technical College and the region’s manufacturers and led by the Idea Circle, Greater Bemidji’s MI2 center trains and places 100 plus or our community members annually in manufacturing jobs throughout north-central Minnesota. MI2 is now seen as a statewide model of providing timely, cost-effective skill-based training that results in career level jobs for the trainees.


In addition, Greater Bemidji is working with companies to adjust personnel policies to meet the needs of a changing workforce. For example, one local company created a shift from 9 am to 3
pm specifically to meet the needs of school-age parents. Companies are looking at their hours of operation, their education and experience requirements, remote work and other hiring practices to support the diverse needs of workers.


Removing barriers for our current community members is not enough. We have to find ways to increase the number of workers entering our region’s workforce. We partnered with the
Bemidji School District to launch the Bemidji Career Academies which not only helps the students test the waters on occupations but opens their eyes to the career opportunities right here in our back yard. Our ultimate goal is to keep our talent in north-central Minnesota.


Finally, Greater Bemidji has worked hard over the past few years to recruit additional families and workers to our region. Our 218 Relocate program, initially targeted to remote workers,
now promotes the region to all workers regardless of current job or occupation. The 218 Relocate program is our welcome mat to the region, supporting families relocating here and
integrating them into our great community. The program has been very effective, serving nearly 300 new community members over the last few years. The program has garnered a significant amount of state and national press, raising the profile of the region as a great place to live, work and raise a family.


All these initiatives are targeted at increasing our available workforce and support our workers. Yet two things are clear. There is much more to do, and Greater Bemidji doesn’t have all the
answers. We’d love to hear what ideas you have. What are barriers affecting your ability to enter the workforce? What place-making initiatives can we invest in to make the greater
Bemidji region a location of choice for workers and families? How can we support our local businesses more?


Drop me an email to share your ideas.
Dave Hengel

Minnesota’s Emerging Regional Center

Our community has all the regional center amenities to support your business and workforce,
while maintaining the small town beauty and character that make this place home.