Good news at Alexandria Industries in Douglas County, the heart of the Minnesota manufacturing mecca.

The aluminum fabrication company, which employs 480 in the Alexandria area, is investing several million dollars to expand its production and warehouse space.

The bad news: The privately held firm, which has long surpassed pre-recession revenue and employment levels, is struggling to fill the 50 jobs that are open or anticipated over the next six months at $15 to $30 an hour, plus benefits.

"There are too few skilled workers or ready-to-train workers available," said Lynette Kluver, Alexandria Industries director of operational development. "We can train them."

Overall, Minnesota manufacturing employment has grown modestly since the Great Recession to about 313,400 jobs through July of this year, according to statistics on file at the Minnesota Department of Economic Development. However, that's still down 7.2 percent from 337,711 Minnesota manufacturing jobs in 2007.

And while the state now employs more workers than ever and the unemployment rate of 4 percent is better than the nation as a whole, manufacturing continues to decline as a percentage of all Minnesota jobs. The Minnesota economy, particularly in the Twin Cities, is driven by health care, professional and business services, including software and computer technicians, leisure and hospitality.

That is less so in the nine west-central Minnesota counties that stretch from Elk River, 30 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, to Alexandria, about 140 miles to the northwest.

State analysts say that, despite manufacturing's overall decline, the central Minnesota cluster of 30-plus manufacturers that employ at least 100 workers are the spearhead of the state's industrial manufacturing economy. This is more about packaging machinery and making accessories for trucks than medical technology. Some of the most modern plants operated by highly skilled workers include names such as Alexandria Industries, Superior Industries of Morris (which employs 1,400) and Sportech of Elk River.

And they are all hungry for workers, banding together and employing separate strategies to expand the hiring pool in a part of the state that still boasts more trees, lakes and crops than people.

In October, a statewide promotion month for manufacturers, Alexandria Industries is hosting what it calls a "Not So Heavy Metal Tour" next Saturday to tell students and prospective employees how they can make a good living making useful things from huge cylinders of aluminum.

"You can make enough to own a house, a boat behind a nice truck and raise a family in Alexandria," said Kluver. "That's what I've got."

In addition to good wages and benefits, Alexandria Industries tells high school students and other prospects that it will train them, and provide up to 100 percent tuition reimbursement at Alexandria Area Technical School, the local community college.

"We'll be accepting applications during the heavy metal tour," said Patty Hoffman, a marketing specialist at Alexandria Industries.

According to the Alexandria Workforce Center, 150 open manufacturing positions are being advertised in the Alexandria area alone. A state job vacancy survey this summer showed 552 manufacturing vacancies in the nine-county west central region.

Moreover, the median starting manufacturing wage in west-central Minnesota has risen from about $10.50 an hour in 2007 to $14 an hour, according to state statistics.

The west-central area has 1,802 more manufacturing jobs in 2014 than in 2000, a 17.6 percent increase. Meanwhile, Minnesota manufacturing jobs in 2014 were down 83,639, or 21 percent, from 2000.

In addition to pitching high school students, Alexandria Industries and other employers are also trying to lure back people from the area who miss nearby Lake Carlos, or who prefer a simpler lifestyle and lower housing costs than the Twin Cities. And no traffic jams.

In fact, Kluver's daughter, Katie Rentschler, who grew up in Alexandria, recently moved back with her husband.

He took a job with an area packaging-equipment manufacturer. Rentschler works her Twin Cities job by phone and computer.

The Greater Alexandria area, with a year-round population of about 35,000, boasts outdoor recreation, good schools, health care and arts.

Don't forget community concerts and the Carlos Creek Winery, added Hoffman, who grew up in suburban Minneapolis. She moved to slower-paced Alexandria several years ago, partly to be near her elderly mom.

And Hoffman doesn't miss the traffic on the way to her former employer in downtown Minneapolis.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •