FERGUS FALLS, MINN. - DFL Gov. Mark Dayton embarked on a new chapter for his administration Wednesday, hosting the first of several forums to focus on what has proven a bedeviling task: creating jobs.

"Wherever there is a job to be saved or gained in Minnesota, I want to be right on top of it," Dayton said. "The best job-creation opportunities are right in the local communities, with the businesses that are already here."

Dayton sought residents' ideas to kick-start the economy and get companies growing and hiring in a climate where job growth has been sluggish, at best. He was joined by a dozen Fergus Falls area community leaders and some 250 residents eager to talk about too-low wages, too little training and the difficulty of getting business loans.

The job forums are Dayton's first major initiative after a grinding, months-long legislative fight to wipe out a $5 billion budget deficit. With that accomplished, he now turns his attention to tackling the state's unemployment rate, which has ticked back up in recent months. The fate of Dayton's administration is deeply interwoven with the economic health of the state. If the nation succumbs to a double-dip recession and state coffers run short again, Dayton and legislators could be back for a savage second round in their bruising battle over taxes and cutting.

Fergus Falls served as the backdrop for what will be a dozen such jobs forums around the state, culminating with a statewide jobs summit in October.

Jobs, but at what price?

Fergus Falls' situation is better than many. The area's unemployment has consistently been lower than the state average -- now 7.2 percent statewide -- due largely to a thriving local agricultural industry. The historic main street bustles with shops.

But a slightly deeper look tells a different story. Several counties in the region have poverty levels higher than the state average. Many people are underemployed, with subpar wages or too few hours.

It is not uncommon to find middle-age college graduates working at jobs that pay barely $10 an hour with no benefits.

Heidi Paulson is a legal assistant in downtown Fergus Falls. Her husband died of pancreatic cancer and she is raising two children on her own, working a job that offers no health insurance.

She said she believes government needs to pour money into the economy to get people back to work, largely through new infrastructure projects.

"Our country needs the infrastructure built back up," she said. "Cut taxes? Nah. That's just a political game. We need real jobs."

Jen Petersen, an independent sales director with Mary Kay cosmetics, was too busy to attend the governor's forum. But she offered this advice: Make schools strong, ensure the area has high-speed Internet and don't do things to undermine the success of Otter Tail Power Co., a giant regional employer.

She said the state throws up roadblocks for the local power company and then goes out of its way to help more environmentally friendly power producers.

"Don't squash us for wind and alternative energy," she said.

A wide range of residents talked about a growing disconnect between the jobs available and the skills of those looking to land those jobs. On top of enviable unemployment numbers, job providers say there are 1,400 open positions in the region.

But locals often don't have the right skills to qualify for those jobs.

Kathryn Loosbrock helps place workers for the Work Connection, an independent staffing outfit with an office in downtown Fergus Falls. At any given time, she's got roughly 30 production and manufacturing openings that pay upward of $16.75 an hour -- almost $35,000 a year.

Her predicament? About 75 percent of applicants for these jobs cannot correctly read a tape measure. That renders them useless to many of her employers.

Loosbrock is desperate for welders and people with factory skills. The job-seekers who come through her doors tend to have fast food and retail experience.

"We have the jobs, we just don't have the right people out there or the right skills," she said.

Changes needed

Back at the forum, local business leaders said homegrown companies are the best hope to create more jobs. State leaders, they said, need a deeper understanding of existing employers and a more aggressive plan for delivering the services and workers they require.

"We need to build on the businesses we have," said Tom Mortenson, county administrator for nearby Becker County. "We need to make sure the businesses we have are recognized and built on."

Darla Berry, city clerk of New York Mills, told Dayton the state has made it hard for small, struggling communities to recruit and expand local businesses.

"We're too small to have economic development, but we do what we can," Berry said.

She said new road and sewer projects vital to business expansion have been slow to come. She wants more flexibility in using tax incentives that foster partnerships between local governments and local businesses. She complained about cumbersome and sometimes-redundant permitting that puts a chokehold on businesses.

Dayton told Berry he has made streamlining permitting a priority. "If you don't see improvement in six months, give me a call," he said.

After the forum, Dayton said he found the 90-minute session informative and worthwhile.

"It's a very hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, go-anywhere, anytime, anyplace" kind of initiative, Dayton said. "That's the way I am going to approach this for the next 3 1/2 years."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288