Northland underemployed are working, but not out of the woods

Martin Lee has an MBA from Baylor University and is a registered nurse. His current job: repairing medical equipment, power wheelchairs and power scooters. It's scheduled to end Oct. 1.

Jerry King
Jerry King at his home on Little Pequaywan Lake. (Clint Austin /

Martin Lee has an MBA from Baylor University and is a registered nurse. His current job: repairing medical equipment, power wheelchairs and power scooters. It's scheduled to end Oct. 1.

Mark Koehler graduated in May from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a bachelor's degree in communication. He's earning $9 per hour as a telemarketer for a local firm, supplementing that work by selling advertising for a direct-mail company on a commission basis. His full-time work ends in three weeks.

Jerry King is a self-employed carpenter with 40-plus years of experience who was forced to lower his rates after going 9ยฝ months last year without any jobs. This year has been steadier, and he's remodeling a small bathroom in a private home now. But he has nothing lined up after that.

Lee, Koehler and King, all of the Duluth area, represent a little-acknowledged aspect of the recession economy: underemployment.

While 15 million Americans who want to work have no jobs at all, the Labor Department reports that another 9 million have part-time jobs but want to work full time. That's not the only kind of underemployment, said Drew Digby, a regional labor market analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Underemployment also includes workers who are overqualified for the jobs they hold.


While there's no local data that specifically addresses the issue, other indicators suggest underemployment may be worse in the Northland than the rest of Minnesota. According to data from DEED, the average weekly wage for someone in Duluth is $752, about 14 percent lower than the rest of the state. A DEED job vacancy survey found that 40 percent of the jobs in Northeast Minnesota were part-time, compared to 42 percent for the rest of the state.

The average number of hours someone works -- a prevalent measure of underemployment -- is 32.1 in Northeast Minnesota compared to 33.5 statewide. While DEED doesn't have historical data, Digby suggested the numbers would probably be similar over the past several years.

"We're a little bit behind but not massively behind the rest of the state on something like this," he said. "If there were historical data, that's what it would show."

"Misemployed" growing

In the Northland, Digby said, the reason for underemployment is often a case of a mismatch: Workers have skills and employers need skilled workers -- but the skills they need don't match the skills the workers have.

"A lot of the traditional areas of our economy have been shrinking where other areas of our economy have been growing, but the skill sets are often completely different," Digby said. "The best example of that is the decline in manufacturing employment over the years and the rise in health care. They both may be highly skilled, but the skills don't necessarily transfer."

Jim Skurla, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UMD, was lead author of a 2005 study on underemployment and mismatched employment in the region. It concluded that "23.3 percent of those currently employed have one or more valid certificates or degrees that are not used in their current job." In the region, about 127,700 people were "misemployed," the study said.

It's probably worse now, Skurla said. "I think there's going to be more, both discouraged workers and underemployed workers, since 2005, and it's just because of the state of the economy here. People are ... getting by as best they can with whatever job they can find right now."



That's the case for Lee, 53, who has lived in Duluth six years and lost his job as a registered nurse two years ago. His current job pays a little more than $11.50 an hour with no benefits, he said, and will end when his predecessor returns from a military deployment in Iraq. He lives with his 14-year-old son and his fiancee, who has a job.

Are they doing OK?

"Surviving," Lee said. "I'm not sure I'd go as far as OK, but surviving. I am a very thrifty person. I always have been. I don't waste money."

It's also survival mode for King, 61, and his wife, Kathy, who live in Normanna Township. Although Kathy King has a job in the physical therapy department at the College of St. Scholastica, her pay mostly goes to their $1,000-a-month house payment, Jerry King said. He's having trouble covering other expenses.

"I've had to use all my IRA up that I had saved for retirement," he said. "I've had to sell a number of things. I've had to not have things because I cannot afford them. ... Last year we limited going to church because it's so far away and I can't afford to keep putting gas in my vehicle."

The Kings bought their home on Little Pequaywan Lake more than 20 years ago and moved there from Minneapolis after their youngest child graduated from high school more than six years ago. People told him work would be plentiful in the Northland.

They were wrong, King said. He went from having enough jobs on his waiting list to last two years in Minneapolis to not knowing what his next job will be here.


"I cannot get enough work to keep me busy for the whole year or six months or two months," he said. "I applied for at least ... 30 to 35 jobs in the last two years and I've only gotten two responses," neither of which led to a job offer.

Koehler, 24, plans to stay in Duluth for a couple of years, because his girlfriend is a student in the pharmacy school. But he doesn't see a long-term future here.

"The Cities is where we'd both like to end up," Koehler said. "Duluth is a hard area to get jobs."


That perception doesn't necessarily match the reality, said Jon Obrecht, a member of Duluth's Workforce Council who owns the Express Employment job-placement agency in downtown Duluth. He said people from the Twin Cities are looking for jobs in Northeastern Minnesota.

When he posted a listing for designers on the News Tribune's website, the bulk of the applicants were from the Twin Cities area. "Locally, we had one, maybe two people that applied." Listings for mechanical designers and computer-aided drafters also attract people from the metro area, Obrecht said.

A similar situation applies to construction work, said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council. Although the jobs situation isn't good here -- the unemployment rate for the 15 construction trade unions he represents is about 20 percent -- it's better than in most of the rest of the state.

In the Twin Cities, "they're in dire straits," Olson said. "They don't have nearly the work that we do up here. ... The last 20 years that we've lived here the opportunity's been in the metro area for a lot of our people, and they go down there to work or relocate there. But it's kind of flip-flopped."


King hasn't seen evidence of that. His search for steady work has been disheartening, he said, particularly because he moved to the area with the promise that there'd be plenty of work for a carpenter.

Koehler and Lee are more upbeat.

"I'm very confident," Koehler said. "I don't give up on things. I'm a go-getter. I'll figure out a way."

Lee attributed his optimism to religious faith and life experience.

"I believe that God's going to take care of our needs," Lee said. "There's going to be rough patches, there's going to be can't-get-traction patches, there's going to be scary times. God never promised there wouldn't be. Ultimately, everything is going to work out."

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