With the growing influence of technology, changing foreign markets, and demographic shifts, the economy and communities of southwest Minnesota is already experiencing another fundamental transformation that threatens to take local leaders by surprise. So, as part of an effort to fill in the gaps and spread critical data, regional labor market analyst Luke Greiner gave a presentation to the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners during their regular meeting on Tuesday, May 24.
Greiner works within the Labor Market Information (LMI) Office, a division of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). His office helps produce employment and economic statistics which are then shared with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Greiner and his department are also responsible for measuring unemployment rates, wages and salaries, and job projections. His work forms the basis for market-responsive planning by the state and federal governments.
Greiner began by laying out new and projected demographic trends. According to his data, Yellow Medicine County has experienced a continuous population decline since the mid-20th century (the exact opposite trend experienced at the state level). In 1950, the county’s population stood at 16,279 and Minnesota’s population was 2,582,483. Last year, Yellow Medicine’s population had fallen to 9,867 while the state’s population increased to 5,575, 609. Since 2000 alone, there were 13% fewer people in the county. The downward trend is expected to continue well into the future, with an additional 550 residents projected to leave by 2040.
With a smaller population overall, it should come as no surprise that Yellow Medicine has also experienced a shrinking workforce.
Despite this otherwise gloomy portrait, Greiner said there was still hope. Regional job openings are still plentiful, with an estimated 730 vacancies in our region. The number of job seekers per vacancy is also at a historic low, with roughly 1.2 seekers per job opening.
In addition to this rough outline of southwestern Minnesota’s economy and population, Greiner also reviewed other concerns with the county commissioners.
According to Greiner, an estimated one in ten residents (roughly 963) are below the federal poverty line. A higher percentage (14.1%) of young people are in poverty, and a full 41% of K-12 enrolled students are on free or reduced lunch programs (a higher number than Hennepin County). Nevertheless, the median household income of $55,690 is “relatively high” when compared with neighboring communities.
Roughly 12% of Yellow Medicine County residents are disabled, with a fairly even gender divide (12.6% for men and 11.8% for women). Despite common misconceptions about disabled people, a full 48% are participating in the labor force, and the estimated unemployment figure for the disabled is 2.5% (though Greiner says that this number may be slightly higher due to the small sample size of the survey).
The Next Generation
For Greiner, the biggest single factor determining future economic and community development is young people. In one recent survey of area students, 75% said that they would stay in their communities after graduation if they could get a good paying job. He also blamed the social stigma associated with students choosing not to pursue a 4-year-degree, pointing out that about 65% of all jobs require a high school degree or less. In fact, high demand jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and the service industry require much different education and training, and many employers are willing to pay for parts of their employees’ educational needs.
Greiner told the county Board about the importance of stressing positive aspects of rural life such as the low cost of living and high demand for manufacturing jobs. He says this is just one way to dispel negative stereotypes about small towns, and will help attract future residents. Looking into the future, Greiner added that it was important for civic leaders to link community development with economic growth. Issues like childcare and housing, for example, go hand in hand with concerns such as employment and wages. By anticipating future trends and developments, Greiner said the county would well positioned for sustained growth.