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Amid record-low unemployment in Duluth, challenges remain for jobless and employers

Duluth hit record-low unemployment this fall, but not everyone is celebrating.

"Every single employer I talk to is having a hard time filling positions," said Elena Foshay, Duluth's director of workforce development. "And some aren't able to grow because they can't find the people."

Yet there are more than 1,000 Duluthians actively looking for work, not to mention those who have historically faced barriers to employment and may not be counted in that state estimate released last week. So while the city overall saw 2.4 percent unemployment in October, there is still work to be done to bring many folks into the workforce.

"It's uneven. Some groups are experiencing disproportionately higher unemployment rates," Foshay said.

African-Americans and Native Americans have jobless rates much higher than white Minnesotans, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development and Census figures. And it can be a struggle for single parents, the young and the elderly to find the right job.

Foshay's office — the Workforce Center at 402 W. First St. — is open to everyone but has programs specifically for those groups.

"Low unemployment is a real opportunity," Foshay said. "It removes the layers to show us the people who really need help."

And what they need help with: Transportation, child care and flexible scheduling are all issues that keep quality candidates from applying.

It's much the same for those who come to Soar Career Solutions at 205 W. Second St.

"There's a few more barriers in terms of soft skills — just the ability to know how to work and be a good employee," said Emily Edison, SOAR's executive director. "The willingness is there, but we're seeing if employers did take a chance and maybe helped with a mentoring component ... there would be a dedicated workforce for them."

All across St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties unemployment remained in record-low territory earlier this fall at 2.7 percent. The actual number of unemployed people — those looking for a job who are unable to find one — has also fallen to its lowest level since at least 1990, state data shows.

That's largely driven by hiring in construction, manufacturing, retail and health care, all industries expected to need more workers in the near future.

The building trades especially face a mountain of impending work in the next several years — the medical district, Superior Street and the can of worms interchange, among others. They are also facing an avalanche of retirements as baby boomers leave the workforce.

"We know there's this urgent need to fill the workforce void," Edison said. "We want people to be ready for an entry-level position within the construction jobs, and the same with health care."

There is reason to be optimistic. The number of long-term unemployed has fallen to its lowest level this century, according to DEED, and the same goes for so-called discouraged workers and underemployed Minnesotans, many of whom seem to be coming off the sidelines and fully participating in the workforce.

Then again, that also leaves fewer workers to choose from.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Daniel Fanning, director of institutional advancement at Lake Superior College. "Because demand is so high, employers are plucking our students before they graduate. It's becoming a struggle to keep students in these programs."

Employers in many industries are increasingly looking outside the immediate area for help — though with low unemployment rates across the region, it's a job-seeker's market everywhere you look.

"The good news for us as a campus, and for us as a community, is we're seeing increased interest from outside the area," Fanning said. Enrollment at LSC is up 1.5 percent this year, he added.

To keep hiring local, Foshay said now is the time for employers to get creative and consider more training opportunities — and, perhaps, higher pay.

"There's this perception of low cost of living, but that's not always the case," she said.

Edison said employers are coming to the table and actively talking about new strategies as the applicant pool dwindles.

"I think there is a shift that's happening," she said. "We're all going to have to think differently about how to fill the workforce shortage, and I think there's a lot of positive movement happening."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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