The Amazon bus arrives before dawn each day in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis, delivering workers from a night of packing orders at the company’s Shakopee warehouse. Around the corner, day-shift employees climb aboard another coach headed south.
More buses and shuttles dispatched by employers will crisscross the city throughout the day. They will ferry workers to pack gift cards in Rogers, make frozen food in Chanhassen and box cereal in Lakeville.
For Minnesota companies facing an unemployment rate as low as it has been in 16 years, finding workers has rarely been so difficult. At the same time, an increasing number of blue-collar jobs are moving outward to burgeoning job centers near the metro’s edge, upending a downtown-centric transit system that once reliably served factories in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
That’s forcing companies like Amazon and General Mills to offer rides of their own to woo workers from urban neighborhoods.
It’s a costly solution for the few companies that can afford it, and the travel takes a toll on workers.
“I love Amazon to death. It’s just this commute. Getting back and forth just kills everybody,” said Bobby Huggins, who walks from his north Minneapolis home and takes the light rail to catch the 4:45 a.m. Amazon bus. He doesn’t get home again until 7 p.m.
The challenge is particularly acute for companies seeking shift workers whose schedules don’t align with whatever transit is available. Compounding the problem, there are more metro-area job postings than people to fill them.
“What happens if businesses don’t stay, expand or locate here because they cannot find workers for their jobs?” asked Caren Dewar, executive director of Urban Land Institute Minnesota. ULI recently dubbed the distance between low-wage jobs and where their workers live, coupled with gaps in the transportation network, a “regional economic imperative.”
To make pies and other baked goods in Chaska, Legendary Baking works with staffing agencies that shuttle workers in vans from Minneapolis.
“It just seems like every week there’s a new company that’s starting up that needs 50 people,” said Chris Ellingson, Legendary’s director of human resources. “And the labor market out here, where we’re at, is much more sparse than in the downtown metro.”
Job offerings shift
Jobs paying less than $3,333 a month — or about $40,000 a year — are less common in the seven-county metro area than they were a decade ago, largely because wages have risen. But while the number of such jobs fell dramatically in the urban core between 2005 and 2015, they grew by the thousands in cities like Woodbury, Maple Grove, Coon Rapids, Eagan, Apple Valley and Chanhassen, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The metro area has added 13 million square feet of new industrial space in the past three years, but it’s rare to see those new buildings within the central cities. Five times as much industrial square footage has been constructed outside the 494/694 loop than within it, according to commercial real estate firm CBRE.
Modern industrial businesses need higher ceilings, wider columns and more loading docks than old industrial buildings offer, said Dan Swartz, a senior vice president with the company. Demolishing and redeveloping older city buildings rarely makes financial sense, he said.
“In the industrial world, to find land you have to go out to those outer rings,” Swartz said.
Yet many workers who fill the lower-wage jobs live elsewhere, where housing is more affordable. Sometimes, workers don’t have cars.
Metro Transit buses thousands of commuters into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul each day, but service development director Adam Harrington said creating viable routes to serve suburban jobs is harder, even along Interstate 494 where there are many employers: Buses would have to serve workers from all directions and employees who drive are reluctant to take the bus when there’s free parking.
“It’s certainly a continuing issue. And it really again comes down to where do these employers want to locate,” Harrington said. “I would just ask that they consider that transportation aspect before they finalize their decisions.”
J&B Group, a company that processes meat for supermarkets and restaurants under the “No Name” brand, expects to lose some employees when it closes its Seward-area Minneapolis plant and moves jobs to its headquarters in St. Michael — 30 miles to the northwest.
“By the time they took a bus or light rail to get to someone else’s house to do a carpool they’ve already put an hour into their commute,” said Human Resources Director Susan Folkens.
Filling transit gaps
Amazon has gone to some of the greatest lengths to get staff to its Shakopee fulfillment center, which employs 2,000 people.
It runs four coach buses a day out of Cedar-Riverside through a partnership with the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota to help fill jobs. The confederation, run by Mohamud Noor, has seen so much demand for workers it intends to spin off its job placement program, Shaqodoon, into a separate organization.
“I have not placed anyone in the Twin Cities area for a long time,” Noor said while aboard the bus to Amazon, referring to Minneapolis and St. Paul. “Every job that I see in terms of low-skill wages it’s outside the Twin Cities.”
Those buses will stop running at the end of the month, a company spokeswoman said, now that Amazon has arranged a customized service through the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA). It has paid about $380,000 to MVTA for a special stop on a new suburban route and for weekend service — synced to Amazon shift times — to get workers between Minneapolis and the suburban route transfer point in Burnsville.
But other companies are still trying to figure out how to get employees to work.
Fliers advertising jobs at General Mills’ Chanhassen bakery boast about a free bus from Lake Street, a pilot program the company began this month. Mystic Lake Casino, which spent years running its own buses from the cities, now shuttles employees who take MVTA buses to Shakopee’s Marschall Road Transit Station. Archway, a marketing firm in Rogers, has been bussing temporary workers from Cedar-Riverside to package gift cards for the holiday season.
Archway turned to Aerotek, a staffing agency, to find workers as the labor market tightened. Jordan Anderson, who manages light industrial recruiting for Aerotek, said more of his clients are considering employee transportation options.
“Over the last couple of years, it’s definitely been a much more hot topic,” Anderson said, adding that most are put off by the cost.
Tod Oswald, general manager of the Woodbury Sheraton, sees the problem, too, as he tries to recruit staff. When he managed a hotel in Bloomington, the majority of employees took transit. In Woodbury, buses are limited, and some staff use Uber to commute.
“There’s jobs out here for people,” Oswald said. “But the applicant base is a lot less because transportation is one thing that holds you back.”