Valencia Hardy dropped out of 11th grade after having a baby a few years ago, and her life swerved between taking care of her child and starting a career.

She eventually graduated from an alternative high school and trained in health care assisting for a time. Early this year, she started the 20-week construction class at Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis, which included a chance to build cabins near Ely. “It opened your eyes to the real world,” she said.

Last week, Hardy, now 22, started her first real-world job with Doug Speedling Builders of Hastings, joining the crew in a shop in St. Paul where carpenters build wall panels. “She’s helping us out quite a bit,” said Patrick Duffy, her supervisor. “She fit in real well.”

In today’s roaring economy, people who have long been on the margins of the American labor force — immigrants, teenagers, former prisoners, high school dropouts — are getting jobs at rates unseen in a generation or more. And employers are going to new lengths to hire them.

These workers are benefiting from the nine-year-old economic expansion and two massive demographic changes: the retirement of baby boomers and a leveling off of women entering the job market. And as more people seek jobs, they encourage friends and relatives to do the same.

For some, today’s opportunities represent a start to overcoming poverty, troubled pasts and other challenges. They are hardly the end, however. Many jobs are still low-paying, with few benefits and little security. Others require workers to accept irregular schedules.

Even so, training programs at places like Summit Academy are full these days. Employers flock to them to find job candidates. Some are funding new training programs within them. Fairview Health Systems, for instance, is developing an eight-month course at the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center in Minneapolis for operating room technicians, a job that will pay a living wage.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii - Star Tribune
Summit Academy, where Kalo Washington is studying IT, is currently full, and employers are flocking there to find much-needed job candidates. 

“In the past, we’ve had to do all the footwork in trying to find employers to work with us, especially in this community that has been marginalized for so long,” said Barb Hydeen, director of Takoda Works Services at the American Indian OIC in Minneapolis, which runs an adult training center and high school. “Now, we have no trouble getting employers in.”

Some employers have found that online job applications excluded too many prospects and have returned to paper forms. Many companies have quietly lowered academic and work experience requirements. Glassdoor, the job review website, last month published a list of 15 prominent companies, including Apple, Google and IBM, that no longer require a college degree for applicants to most jobs.

“More than ever, employers are willing to look at minimal requirements and rethink them,” said May Xiong, vice president for employment readiness at Project for Pride in Living (PPL) in Minneapolis. She said firms that previously required an applicant to have two years’ work experience are today taking into account the specialized training a person gets at a place like PPL.

Minnesota’s unemployment rate fell to 2.9 percent last month, the lowest level since December 1999. But growth in the state’s 3 million person workforce has slowed to a crawl and is expected to flatten and possibly reverse in the 2020s. The only solutions are to attract more people to the state and pull more current Minnesotans into the workforce.

This year, data show the latter has started to happen, with groups whose jobless rates have been persistently higher than average seeing big changes. For example, the unemployment rate for Minnesotans without a high school diploma is now below 6 percent, less than half what it was year ago. And the unemployment rate for black Minnesotans was 4.8 percent in August, down from 8.7 percent a year ago.

“These tight conditions are a mechanism to be much better situated to deal with the challenges we’re going to have for the next ten years or so in terms of a lack of workers,” said Steve Hine, labor market analyst at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “It’s going to be very helpful if employers create opportunities that engage people who otherwise might not have been involved in the workforce.”

For many employers, that means changes to recruiting and retention tactics. Parasole Restaurant Holdings, one of the largest independent restaurant operators in the Twin Cities, has been one to three employees short of normal staffing in all of its restaurants for months. It’s on the verge of offering referral bonuses, now confined to managers, to the entire staff. “Current employees are usually the best source of getting talent,” said Donna Fahs, its chief operating officer.

For the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, sheer hustle paid off at a job fair hosted by Twin Cities Rise at the north Minneapolis Workforce Center this month. When one young woman approached the hotel’s recruiters, they immediately recognized that her experience would appeal not just to them but to other employers at the fair.

Dusty Perryman, the hotel’s HR chief, sent text messages to department heads at the hotel and lined up meetings for her the next day. She became one of three people the hotel hired from that event. “In HR, we don’t high-five a lot, but walking away from that job fair, we were feeling pretty good,” Perryman said.

For more than a year, Fairview Health Systems has sent recruiters at least once a month to the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center to meet candidates identified by Emerge Community Development, a nonprofit that helps people find jobs. Fairview has made 34 hires through the outreach. Earlier this month, they met for a second time with Anthene Tadesse, a pharmacist in Ethiopia who moved to Minnesota in July, and helped him complete an online application for a support job in a pharmacy.

“He chose to apply for that so he can get into the pharmacy area, work with the people he’s used to and hopefully start learning where he needs to get his skills and certifications to be a pharmacist in the U.S.,” said Regina Pekarek, a workforce development manager at Fairview.

Tadesse’s sister Etalem, a nursing assistant at the VA Hospital, had a much different experience when she arrived in Minnesota in 2009 at the height of the last recession. “I used to apply to Fairview a lot for maybe three or four years,” she said. “I never heard from them.”

Today’s demand for workers is so high that training centers and schools sometimes face a challenge keeping students. They are getting job offers even before finishing courses. “We don’t begrudge someone for seeking employment,” said Joe Hobot, chief executive of the American Indian OIC, but he and other teachers tell students that education will yield longer-term success. Hobot added, “It’s a difficult argument to make with someone in crisis.”

For decades, the last people hired in good economic times tended to be the first to lose their jobs in a downturn. But some workforce specialists and economists speculate that the exit of the baby boomers could change that for the people now going to work from the sidelines. “So many baby boomers are going to be replaced by people from groups and communities that weren’t traditionally taking on those opportunities,” said Bill Bridgeman, director of employer services at Twin Cities Rise.

At Summit Academy’s weekly information session for prospective students, chief executive Louis King lays out the data. Minnesota’s workforce growth will be zero in 2020, he told one recent group of 105 recruits. “How much?” King called out. “Zero!” they shouted back.

“Let me tell you what that means,” he said. “Everybody, 8 to 80, has to go to work.”