Major leisure boat manufacturers in Minnesota are scrambling to expand their payrolls in response to surging demand from customers hungry for recreation while still abiding by the social distancing norms of a pandemic that is sure to persist for many more months.

Brunswick's production facility in New York Mills, where Lund and Crestliner boats are built, has added 114 positions in the past six months and needs to fill 60 more.

Others in the boating-production industry in Minnesota, Polaris and Winnebago, said they are going through similar experiences.

"We're going to continue this for two or three more years, for sure," said Dirk Hyde, president of Lund Boats and its New York Mills operations. "We can look and predict, and we know it's going to be a while before we can fill that dealer pipeline."

Societal restrictions designed to combat the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic are steering away Americans by the millions every day from many leisure options, among them going to the movies, long-distance travel and attending sporting events.

Outdoor recreation as a whole — from hunting to snowmobiling — has seen increased interest, including from first-timers, during the pandemic. The key, manufacturers have said, is to sustain the attention after the pandemic ends.

Hyde said his industry is benefiting. Brunswick's third- and fourth-quarter net sales in 2020 are up by about 26% over the same period in 2019.

"There are a few things" working in favor of boating, Hyde said.

"People are saying, 'I can go out and do this.' And another part is spending time with your family and friends, probably more with family," he said. "And you can get your attention away from the other things, the TV and the handheld [devices]."

Hyde said he believes the bump in boating has staying power because "we're seeing a nice increase in first-time boat buyers as well as people who left and came back."

The "good problem" before Brunswick, based in suburban Chicago and the world's largest recreational boat company, is finding the dozens of additional employees it needs at its facilities in New York Mills along with filling openings in nearly all of its plants in Tennessee, Florida, Washington state, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Hyde said the company has a competitive benefits package. Among the hiring incentives: a boost in night shift premium pay, free use of boats in the summer, retention and referral bonuses, and day-care assistance.

"There is a lot we try to do," he said.

Brunswick's success in the midst of a pandemic also is lifting the boats of many competitors, according to the industry's leading trade group in North America.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) reported that sales of new powerboats in the United States rose in 2020 by roughly 12% compared with 2019. More than 310,000 new powerboats were sold in 2020, levels the recreational boating industry has not seen since before the Great Recession in 2008, the association highlighted.

Winnebago Inc., based 18 miles south of the Minnesota border in Forest City, Iowa, with executive management working out of Eden Prairie, is seeking to expand its workforce like others in the industry.

"Our Chris-Craft [boats] business is experiencing robust interest in our products as American consumers have been drawn to the benefits of outdoor lifestyle activities during the pandemic," said Winnebago spokesman Chad Reece.

After a suspension of production in March, when strict virus-related restrictions kicked in around the country, Reece said, "we were able to align with new protocols and processes to help ensure the safety of our employees and began ramping up production in May."

With the increase in interest, Winnebago had to increase its staff as well.

Medina-based Polaris, maker of Bennington, Godfrey and Hurricane boats, enjoyed substantial sales increases in late 2020 "as consumers continue to look to the outdoors for social distancing activities," said company spokeswoman Jess Rogers.

Fourth-quarter sales last year rose by more than 50% compared with the same quarter in 2019, Rogers said.

For all of 2020, sales were up by the "midteens" percentagewise vs. 2019, she said.

"Our boat manufacturing facilities in Elkhart, Indiana, are continuing to hire as we anticipate growth in our boats segment in 2021," she said.

The general manager at boat dealer Hallberg Marine, north of the Twin Cities in Wyoming, said his business swung from fear of closure to unprecedented sales.

"It's been pretty phenomenal," said the manager, Austin Hallberg. "It's something like we've never seen before."

Back in February and March, when the coronavirus took root in Minnesota and elsewhere across the United States, "we didn't even know if the business would continue," he said. "Then May and June hit, and it was crazy. Everyone was out there trying to buy a boat."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482