Minnesotans try to weather the economic downturnby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
Between rising unemployment, falling interest rates, precipitous market swings and proposals for stimulus, the economy has been prominent in the headlines for the past couple of weeks, and Minnesotans of all walks of life are feeling the affects in different ways.
St. Paul, Minn. — At the Minnesota Workforce Center in Woodbury, Minn., a sign at the front of the career resource room urges visitors to be quiet. And the 15 people seated at the 15 computer terminals are doing a good job of it, each of them intent on a job search.
"This is the busiest I've seen this office in a long, long time," said Erik Sanden.
Sanden does not work at the Center, but he is amply familiar with the office and the services it offers job seekers. A 10 month long job search finally led Sanden to a post last summer as a staff writer for a trade publication serving the banking industry. But early this month, Sanden said, the publisher decided to turn exclusively to freelance writers, throwing him back onto the job market.
"He felt he would get more value by using freelancers. Obviously, you pay them a set rate and you do not have to pay them benefits. It was a business decision. Frustrating, yes, because I'd been there about seven months. But I understood the situation," explained Sanden.
Being unemployed is an increasingly common situation in Minnesota, where 23,000 jobs were eliminated during the second half of last year. With all the terminals at the workforce center occupied, Kole Yang browsed a bulletin board with lists of job openings.
Yang is a machinist whose job was cut last June. He knows he's in good company as he peruses the lists looking for work.
"There's a lot of people looking for it right now. It seems like there's a lot of job postings but there's too many people looking for one job. So, it's getting a little bit tough," said Yang.
For Minnesota factory workers, things have been getting tough for quite a while, now. Manufacturing employment peaked in 1998 and since then has shrunk by 62-thousand jobs to its lowest level in sixteen years.
Of course, you don't have to lose your job to feel the pain of an economic downturn.
Kathy Schleichert of St. Cloud manages her husband's podiatry office. She reported that patients seem more cautious about double-checking their insurance before scheduling elective surgeries. Schleichert said she and her husband have retrenched financially by canceling vacation plans and downsizing to more fuel-efficient cars.
But they feel especially squeezed by the slumping housing market. The couple owns two homes, including one in the Brainerd Lakes area. They are finding the cost, especially the tax burden, too much to bear and have decided to sell their St. Cloud home. Schleichert says the dilemma involves how to minimize their losses in a down market.
"We don't know if we should sit on it for years and wait for this market to rebound or get out of it before it falls any further," said Schleichert. A recent report showed a three percent decline in Minnesota's median home value. But Realtors say the area from St. Cloud south through the Twin Cities has been especially hard hit by tumbling values. While Schleichert and her husband have not reached a decision about when to sell, her current inclination reflects some of the pessimism that's coursing through the economy.
"We're leaning toward getting it on the market as quickly as possible," she said. "Because, even though they're saying 'Oh, yeah, we're almost rock bottom, it won't go any further,' I'm not so sure of that. Minnesota's been kind of holding its own in real estate compared to California and Florida, but I think the whole country's going to start to decline pretty quickly here, as people get scared of spending money."
There are places, though, where people are not scared and are, in fact, enthusiastic about the economy. At Red Wing Shoes an executive said, contrary to recent remarks by a state official, the company is doing well.
Peter Engel, the director of marketing and communications, says 2007 was a record year and officials are neutral to positive in their outlook for '08. One reason is that the weak dollar has helped boost sales overseas. Engel said exports are up to 15 percent of sales and continue to climb. Indeed, the brand name famous for work boots might even show up someday on the fashion runways of Milan, Italy.
"We have a new initiative where Red Wings are being sold as casual footwear. We have a strong international fashion business that continues to grow," explained Engel. Domestically, Engel said, the company sees a mixed bag. Sales are lagging in the southeast as the construction industry suffers. But they're strong in areas that are thriving, including Midwestern farm regions and the Texas oil patch. Engel says any time oil prices reach $90 a barrel, refineries demand more workers, most of whom wear boots.
At the Workforce Center in Woodbury, Erik Sanden peers at a computer screen from under his maroon and gold cap with the U of M logo. He says if his new job search comes up dry, he may consider leaving his home state to find work.
"I may be forced to do that through no fault of my own. I've no desire to leave but I may not have any choice. That's an option that my family and I may have to consider," said Sanden.
Sanden said he is thinking about Texas. He's heard the Lone Star State is doing a better-than-average job at weathering the economic downturn.
- Morning Edition, 01/24/2008, 7:20 a.m.