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Minnesota Factory Jobs Are Attracting Younger Workers

In 2021, the share of manufacturing employees across the state who were younger than 45 years old was at its highest level in at least a decade, at more than 52 percent. Some hope the negative stereotypes about the industry are changing.

cereal pouring over a conveyor belt in a factory
Rice is popped and emerges onto a conveyor to become Fruity Dyno Bites at Post Consumer Brands Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Northfield, Minnesota.
(David Joles/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
(TNS) — It takes more than 500 employees to produce a million pounds of cereal every day at the Post plant in Northfield, Minn. About 100 of them have been with the company less than a year.

Noah Moyer, 22, is among that new class of operators keeping the plant running 24/7.

He was just looking for a job with benefits; now he writes for the company newsletter and has recruited a number of friends to join him.

"It's a very employee-focused company," Moyer said.

Manufacturers have struggled for years to attract and retain workers, a problem that could become a crisis as long-tenured employees begin to retire in droves.

But younger applicants are showing up, at last, as perceptions of factory jobs change and opportunities for promotion grow.

"It feels like in the last two years we've seen a bit of a pivot where newer generations are coming into the plant," said Julie Sheridan, senior HR manager at the Post cereal plant in Northfield. "That's exciting for us because as we see more interest in manufacturing it means better candidates, better talent."

In 2021, the share of Minnesota manufacturing employees younger than 45 reached its highest rate — more than 52 percent — in at least a decade.

That's not a big leap from years past, but it's progress businesses have been eager to see as a record 11,000 production jobs went unfilled at the end of 2021, according to the most recent data available from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Even before the pandemic, Minnesota manufacturers were having trouble filling jobs. Negative stereotypes about factory work coupled with cultural pressure to put kids through four-year colleges has kept the applicant pool limited.

For a long time, "No parents wanted their children to work in a factory," Amy Cernava, Post's Northfield plant director, said. "So it's really refreshing that perspective is changing."

'Unlimited Demand'

On a recent March morning the sweet aroma of freshly baked Fruity Dyno-Bites filled the air around the massive facility. For Moyer, a Northfield High graduate, that was all he knew about the plant until he started.

"When I walked in the door, I never realized what was inside the building," Moyer said.

The million-square-foot, multistory maze contains a highly synchronized series of machines cooking, coating and boxing thousands of bags and boxes of cereal per hour. Employees churning out Malt-O-Meal, store-brand and Post cereals track production on iPads and attend to the machinery as needed.

Scott Larsen, a 25-year plant veteran, said he too was surprised at the automation and efficiency when he started, thinking the work was similar to the comically dull brewery shifts seen on the 1970s and 1980s sitcom "Laverne & Shirley."

"First day I walked in I assumed that's what it was," said Larsen, now an operations manager. "It was amazing to see how it was back then and all the technology that has changed since."

Exposure to jobs in manufacturing and the trades is crucial to building interest in those careers, advocates say.

"All you see is unlimited demand for those students," said Dan Fisher, CEO of Minneapolis-based ECMC Group, which promotes student success. "It really puts a premium on information for the students to make sure they can make the right decision for themselves."

A recent survey from ECMC found the number of teens planning to pursue a four-year degree has fallen sharply in recent years. Still, nearly all reported feeling pressured to take that route.

There is a balance to be struck between respecting four-year pathways and making sure other options are clearly communicated and supported, Fisher said.

"As a community, as an economy, how do we de-stigmatize non-four-year educational pathways?" he said. "What speaks to the teens, as we've seen in the data, is providing an opportunity they are passionate about."

'The Courage to Know It Will Pay Off'

Nationally, attracting and retaining a workforce is by far the top concern for manufacturing firms, according to the most recent Manufacturers' Outlook Survey — and that labor shortage comes with a cost.

"More than 59 percent of respondents said that not having enough employees will impact their ability to make investments or expand," the quarterly survey found.

Paul Marvin said his company's strategy for growing its workforce is simple: "You need to take care of your employees," said the CEO of Warroad, Minnesota-based door and window manufacturer Marvin.

That's not just profit-sharing, flexible hours and a $300 wellness benefit. It's the intangible workplace culture that compels a person to want to come in to work and go home feeling accomplished day after day.

"You take a very human-centered approach," Marvin said. "Then you have the courage to know it will pay off — if not today then in the long run."

As waves of Marvin "lifers" retire over the next five years — and the company continues to grow its payroll — the search for a new generation of long-term employees is ongoing. While the paycheck (and up to $5,000 signing bonus) can get new hires in the door, it's the sense of security and fulfillment that will keep them there.

"We, meaning the industry, and schools of all sorts need to continue to promote the benefits of this highly rewarding and meaningful work," Marvin said.

In Warroad, Fargo, North Dakota, and a dozen other locations around the country, Marvin touts factories that are "advanced, modern work environments," the CEO said. They've been that way for some time, yet it still takes folks by surprise when they see it.

"That matters," Marvin said. "This is not what your mom and dad or grandma and grandpa viewed as manufacturing jobs."

©2023 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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