The key to jump-starting Minnesota's economy may lie in how well it tackles a bedeviling problem: a growing skills gap that has left some Minnesotans unfit for jobs that employers have to offer.

At a daylong jobs summit convened by Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday, frustrated business leaders gathered from all parts of the state to say they have hundreds of openings but can't find workers qualified to fill them. The skills gap persists even in the face of a state unemployment rate that stubbornly hangs around 7 percent.

"I don't think this is an easy road ahead for our state," Dayton told the 800 participants at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront hotel in downtown St. Paul. "But it is a road we must take."

Dayton pledged quick action after the day's discussions -- he plans to issue an action plan on Wednesday morning.

"We must begin immediately," he said.

Dayton convened the summit after holding nine regional jobs meetings statewide in which he asked local officials and business leaders how best to boost the state's economy.

The consensus: Businesses need help getting access to capital and new markets, and the gap between available workers and jobs must be narrowed.

Years of recession have left the state with persistent budget deficits, deep program cuts and billions of dollars in loans. More red ink means more cuts and testy political fights with Republican legislators who have demonstrated an ironclad resistance to tax increases that Dayton wants.

The problem

As businesses adapt to a shifting economy, they leave behind a glut of unemployed workers from waning industries who are not qualified for the new jobs being created. Those workers increasingly can't afford or don't want to relocate and retraining can be expensive and out of reach.

Nathan Johnson, an administrator with Pioneer Care nursing home in Fergus Falls, said he could hire 15 licensed nurses today -- 40 percent of Pioneer's available nursing shifts, but he can't find qualified nurses.

"It might not sound like a lot in the Twin Cities, but it's a lot for us," Johnson said.

Many of the unfilled jobs are in health care, but more are in vocational fields such as welding, metal work and precision machining, where jobs paying $20 an hour or more go unfilled.

Traci Tapani's metal fabrication company, Wyoming Machine in Stacy, recently published a job opening at what she thought was an attractive annual wage of $36,000.

Four weeks went by without a single applicant.

Eventually, Tapani turned to a recruiting firm, which usually just plucks employees from rival companies, Tapani said.

"It's a very, very competitive situation in manufacturing," she said.

Randy Hatcher, a development director at Ultra Machine Co., has the same problem. He often turns to a recruiter for precision machining jobs, luring employees from a competitor.

"It's a temporary solution, in my opinion," Hatcher said.

Manufacturing businesses worry about being able to fill orders as fewer people look to their field to make a living.

Some of the disconnect may stem from what business managers and even some educators say are overwhelming cultural and parental pressures to push children into a traditional liberal arts education where they can pursue white-collar professions.

Hatcher said there is a "fear factor" in selecting manufacturing as a job field, especially when the career path is different from that of their parents.

"It takes a lot of courage to jump in and try it," he said.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said some parents and educators need to take a second look at opportunities in welding, machining and other vocations.

"We need to start talking to our kids about these other jobs," she said.

With the economy rapidly shifting and sorting out winners and losers, civic and business leaders see a growing reliance on colleges and universities to retrain workers for new fields.

Summit attendees said Minnesotans should expect to change careers several times in their work lives and allow for the possibility that they may need to dip back into school to be retrained.

Noel Lutsey worked as a printer for 32 years, but computers and the Internet decimated his industry. He was laid off three times in five years.

"It was awful," Lutsey said.

Lutsey finally left the printing business and returned to school.

He graduated from Anoka Technical College and went to work for the school as its education enterprise manager, helping connect the school to the business community.

As workers age, he said, they "are afraid to go back to school. It's intimidating for them. But as scary as it is, they are going to need to do it."

A question that stumped participants is how to pay for all the retraining.

"We need to get past the days of relying on state support," said Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. "There is no silver bullet. There is no one source of funding."

Some attendees said tax increases will be needed to meet heightened educational demands -- an idea Republicans have fought hard against.

Inez Wildwood, chair of the governor's Workforce Development Council, jumped in to say educators will need to "use what we have, but use it better," drawing applause.

Despite what amounted to a laundry list of obstacles, many business leaders say they are optimistic.

"This is a great place to grow a business," said Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic.

He said business leaders can't wait for President Obama, Congress or even Dayton to point the way.

"We cannot be searching for the savior," George said.

Neil Crocker, president of Schaefer Ventilation in Sauk Rapids, advised participants to focus on a few manageable initiatives from the summit and hold those ideas to a tough test.

"It would be very easy to be all talk and no action," Crocker said.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288