Business at Minnesota factories grew at a faster rate in April — proving the state an outlier in both the region and the nation as a whole.

Creighton University's widely watched nine-state Mid-America Business Conditions Index fell to 55.9 in April from March's 58.2.

Manufacturing conditions for the nation as a whole, however, fell even more to the lowest point since 2016 — to an index of 52.8 from 53.3 in March, according to the Institute for Supply Management's (ISM) monthly report.

Nationally, the export index contracted in April for the first time since February 2016. At the same time, imports and inventories grew 1.5% during the month, the ISM found.

In Minnesota, the overall conditions index was 54.5, up from 53 in March. Factories here reported strong sales, production and an uptick in new orders despite slower hiring patterns during the month.

Minnesota's generally upbeat results handily beat states such as Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma, which saw their indexes sink below the critical mark of 50 for the first time in months. Any index below 50 signals economic contraction, so economists pay particular attention to such swings.

For the region, April was the 29th consecutive month in which average economic conditions remained above the 50 "growth neutral" threshold.

Still, Creighton's survey results exposed significant labor shortages across the region that also include the Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas.

The region's employment index dropped to a "tepid" 51.1 in April from March's "solid" 56.6, said Ernie Goss, report author and director of Creighton's Economics Forecasting Group. Sales and delivery speeds also fell, while new product orders climbed.

"The regional economy continues to expand at a positive pace. However, as in recent months, finding and hiring qualified workers remained the chief threat to manufacturing economy for the region," he said. Of surveyed factory managers, "approximately 44.7 percent identified labor shortages as the greatest threat to company success in the next 12 months."

Minnesota wasn't immune. Its employment index still grew, but that growth slowed to 52.3 in April. "Over the last 12 months, the Minnesota overall economy has lost jobs at a minus 1.7 percent rate," Goss said.

The nine-state region as a whole saw a bump in inventories, upticks in both imports and exports, and a jump in business confidence for the next three to six months. After past months signaled concerns about trade tariffs, interest rates and labor woes, April's confidence index surprised some economists by advancing to a healthy 62.2 from 57.2 in March.

Goss acknowledged April's optimism, but added: "I expect business confidence [in U.S. factories] to depend heavily on trade talks with China as well as U.S. economic growth in the weeks and months ahead."

Already, first-quarter reports issued last month by 3M Co., spray-equipment firm Graco, Tennant Co. and Ecolab signaled sluggish sales growth for the first three months of 2019. Those manufacturers were affected by several factors, including unfavorable foreign exchange rates, fewer orders from China, the U.K. and Japan, and hits to the automotive and other industrial sectors.

3M announced it would cut about 2,000 jobs. That change and sober news from other industrial companies led some economists to believe that the long forecast economic slowdown may finally be starting.

ISM Manufacturing Business Survey Committee Chairman Timothy Fiore said in a statement that slower growth in production, new orders, prices and employment growth rates led to April's change.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725