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Chamber, EDA, SBDC explore alternatives to international workers for Cook County businesses

Dec 15, 2017 05:44AM ● By Editor
From Staff Report by The Cook County News Herald - Friday, December 15, 2017

An urgent exploration is under way of possible alternatives to international workers as a solution for Cook County’s chronic workforce shortage, reports Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber. The chamber is a chief organizer of this effort, along with the Cook County-Grand Marais EDA and the local office of UMD’s Small Business Development Center. The goal is to secure American rather than international workers.

“With its small and aging population, Cook County simply does not provide sufficient workforce to staff the businesses on which our livelihood depends,” Boyd said. “Primarily those businesses are involved in tourism, which undergoes huge seasonal ebbs and flows of activity. Finding sufficient staff for the summer season, in particular, has been problematic for some time. As a consequence, many county employers have come to rely on international workers recruited to Cook County on J1 and H2B visas.”

“Unfortunately,” Boyd continued, “those visa programs exist at the mercy of the federal government. And both are vulnerable.”

From early last spring, when seasonal workforce shortage worries for the 2017 summer season first surfaced, the Chamber has sought to create a countywide conversation about the problem and ways it might be overcome. At one of the early meetings, Bruce Kerfoot, former owner of Gunflint Lodge who has long, deep experience in the J1 student work-travel visa program, expressed his doubts that the program would survive. It would be wise, he said, if Cook County employers started thinking about a “Plan B” alternative to their current dependence on international workers. Rather than remain at the mercy of federal visa policy, Kerfoot said, Cook County should develop its own workforce recruitment programs.

A follow-up meeting, organized by Mary Somnis of the Cook County-Grand Marais EDA, brought together more than 30 Cook County employers to discuss the Plan B idea. Those attending expressed strong support for exploring alternatives to international workers. Pat Campanaro of the SBDC also has signed on in support of this effort.

Further discussions were held in late October with Sen. Tom Bakk, Rep. Rob Ecklund, IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips and IRRRB director of development Steve Peterson. All expressed great interest in “Plan B” possibilities and pledged support for potential future funding, Boyd said. It was noted that Cook County is not unique in its workforce difficulties, and that any successful Plan B approach here might be helpful in other Minnesota communities.

From this early work, Boyd reports, has emerged a joint Chamber-EDA-SBDC supported group of countywide employers and public officials to further explore options for workforce recruitment in other parts of the United States and its territories.

In addition to workers for the hospitality industry, EDA director Somnis said, “We are keeping watch for opportunities to train and recruit workforce for other industries – health care and the building trades specifically.”

Dennis Rysdahl, owner of the Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts and a chamber board member, emphasized that one result of these efforts might be “replacement of some seasonal employees with year-round employees who become permanent Cook County residents, enroll children in our schools and develop other strong ties to our community. As it now stands, we are being forced to fill permanent, year-round positions piecemeal with two or three seasonal employees, which is very costly and damaging to service quality. ”

For this effort to succeed, Boyd said, “We will need the active support and cooperation of Cook County employers who routinely need additional workers, whether seasonal or year-round. One early request for help will ask employers to complete a survey of their workforce needs. That will be coming shortly, and we hope that everyone will help us ensure it is as comprehensive in its responses as possible.”

If anyone has questions about this initiative, Boyd said, they can contact the Chamber at 218-387-2079 or [email protected].

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