JACKSON, MINN. – With a thick gray beard and a little ponytail, Brad Mohns doesn’t look like your typical CEO. And unlike bosses busy cutting and squeezing, Mohns’ challenge is different, too.
He started his HitchDoc company in the 1980s, fashioning trailer hitches for Harley-Davidson motorcycles on his southwestern Minnesota farm. In the past decade, his plant along Interstate 90 has added lasers to manufacture automotive and farm equipment for 300 customers — mushrooming from a dozen employees to 140.
“And I’m looking for another 30,” Mohns said. “But I’m turning down work because I can’t find enough employees.”
A batch of new job numbers, showing robust employment in southwestern Minnesota and other counties far from the Twin Cities, augments Mohn’s contention that “we’re the forgotten part of the state, pumping out all kinds of commerce, and it would be nice to see us get a little more respect.”
Of the 14 Minnesota counties with at least 80 percent of adults working, only Scott County is in the metro area, according to a new analysis of workers ages 16-64 from the Minnesota Compass group, which tracks trends statewide.
A similar five-year look at unemployment data shows the southwestern Minnesota communities of Worthington (4.8 percent) and Marshall (5.2) boasting the state’s lowest jobless rates, according to analyst Andi Egbert at the State Demographic Center.
And Jackson County, tucked along the west fork of the Des Moines River on the Iowa border, reported a 5 percent increase in jobs from the start of last year to this year. The proportion of Jackson County adults working has climbed from 75.6 percent to 81.7 percent since 1990.
“Everybody who is able to work, and willing, is probably employed,” said Susan Pirsig, economic development coordinator in the county seat of Jackson, population 3,300. “And all of our businesses are attracting people from far away.”
Take the Lucht family, for example. Four of them drive 30 miles from Milford, Iowa, to work at AGCO Corp., Jackson’s major employer. The Georgia-based giant, with $10 billion in worldwide sales, makes massive high-horsepower tractors and high-tech spraying equipment. Its workforce has doubled to more than 1,300 since 2000.
“There’s always a constant buzz around here, it seems,” said Levi Lucht, 25, who works as a manufacturing technician at the 700,000-square-foot AGCO manufacturing “campus” along with his brother Mitchell; father, Tom, and mother, Rita.
Myriad factors at play
Several factors, from a vibrant farm economy the past few years to aging demographics in rural counties, help explain the rosy employment numbers in outstate Minnesota.
Rural counties tend to skew older, with fewer twenty-somethings in college and out of the workforce, “so the number of jobs is spread over a smaller proportion of the population,” said Oriane Casale of the state Labor Market Information office.
Egbert, the demographics analyst, points out that parents with young kids make up a larger share of Twin Cities suburban and exurban population — with one parent often staying out of the workforce because day-care costs are higher than in rural regions.
Sparsely populated counties tend to do well in employment studies because if people can’t find work, they move out or are willing to commute long distances, said John Adams, a retired geography professor at the University of Minnesota.
Major employers, ranging from Rochester’s Mayo Clinic in the southeast, to Thief River Falls’ Arctic Cat in the northwest, to AGCO in Jackson, help drive the positive numbers. A quarter of the AGCO workers commute more than 30 miles, and 70 percent of Jackson’s workforce lives outside the city’s ZIP code.
“The cost of living is often lower in the little counties, so a farmer’s spouse might be willing to drive to Marshall or Brookings [S.D.] rather than pay higher property taxes or leave the good schools of the smaller communities,” said Vince Robinson, an economic development consultant in Lincoln County.
With fewer than 6,000 people along the South Dakota border, Lincoln County has the eighth-fewest people among Minnesota’s 87 counties, and it has lost roughly half its population since the 1930s. But at 84.6 percent, it can brag about the highest proportion of those 16-64 working.
Jackson, two hours southeast of Lincoln County’s seat in Ivanhoe, was one of four Minnesota cities with at least 2,500 people that lost significant population between 2000 and 2010.
“Population declines mean fewer people are competing for those jobs,” Egbert said. “But these low unemployment numbers reflect a lot of vibrancy right now.”
To wit: AGCO bought out the spraying innovator Ag-Chem in 2001, adding Massey Ferguson and Challenger tractor lines and doubling its workforce.
Jackson Mayor Wayne Walter is fired up about a new 48-unit townhouse complex slated to go up in 2014. As is Mohns, the farmer-turned-hitch-doctor. He has four recruiters scouring the country for new employees.
“The No. 1 thing we need is housing, housing, housing,” Mohns said. “The biggest hurdle we have is trying to find employees, and it’s really slowing our growth.”