Northern Minnesota prepares for wave of baby boomer retirementsby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Millions of baby boomers across the country are approaching retirement age. Forty-three percent of the state's workforce will be eligible for retirement within 10 years, and that's expected to create a dramatic worker shortage, leaving employers scrambling to fill vacancies.
In Koochiching County in far northern Minnesota, some say that's not all bad news. Officials there hope the new job openings will attract young families and help reverse the county's 30-year population decline.
International Falls, Minn. — The Boise Cascade paper mill in International Falls is Koochiching County's largest employer. About 850 people work there, but many of them will soon retire.
Company spokesman Bob Anderson says in the next five years alone, Boise will lose 15 percent of its workforce. Anderson says the trend has already resulted in a hiring boost.
"In 2007, we hired 80 persons into the plant," says Anderson. "In an average year we probably have 20 or 25 folks retire. So, we're in that timeline where we're going to be hiring additional folks every year in order to keep the population of the plant where we need it."
The demographic shift presents a significant challenge for Boise -- mainly, where are all those new workers going to come from?
The 2000 census showed Koochiching County's population dropped 12 percent, the biggest loss of any county in the state.
International Falls is shrinking, too. Its population dropped 20 percent in the same period. But some say there are ways to reverse that trend.
"The way I see it is, we have a great opportunity right now," says Julie Schumaker, a customized training representative at Rainy River Community College.
Schumaker has been working with Boise officials on a new program that gives local kids an opportunity to stick around.
It's a two-year specialized training program that teaches the skills Boise needs. It started last fall, and is expected to provide a pipeline of workers for the company.
"Finally, we can offer very good employment opportunities to our young people, to our younger generation," Schumaker says. "In the past, they had to really look at whether they could stay here and make a living after high school."
While the coming workforce turnover is good news for some, it's a nightmare for others.
Bonnie Erickson,interim CEO of Falls Memorial Hospital, worries the medical field will be hit hard by retirements.
Erickson says small, isolated towns like International Falls already have trouble attracting physicians. She says getting a doctor to take a job up north sometimes seems impossible.
"(It's) very difficult, extremely difficult," says Erickson. "The last person that just arrived here, it took two years to get her here. It's extremely difficult. We have been recruiting for five years for a general surgeon."
It's not just a scarcity of doctors that's causing worries. In northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin alone, nearly 4,000 nurses are expected to retire in the next few years.
International Falls and other small communities also fear they won't be able to replace retiring medical technicians, physical therapists, psychiatrists, dentists and pharmacists.
The looming changes have been described as a demographic tsunami. International Falls City Administrator Rod Otterness says the coming wave is putting huge pressure on the community. He says the town critically needs more housing, especially assisted living apartments for seniors.
He says more city government workers will retire, too. That could leave gaps in key positions in law enforcement, city planning and public works.
The town's isolated geography might be a disadvantage in attracting those new workers to northern Minnesota, but it's also a selling point.
Business owners and civic leaders often highlight the region's hunting and fishing opportunities, and the beauty of its lakes and forests. Otterness says he hopes that will be enough.
"Whether or not we can collectively meet the challenges, I question every day -- because of how huge the demographic change is going to be over the next 10 years," says Otterness. "But the main thing for (people) who are maybe tired of being in the Twin Cities, is that there are real opportunities in rural communities for them to work and enjoy the lifestyle that we all like that live in small, rural Minnesota towns."
Nationally, competition for all those needed workers will be fierce. In just three years, the oldest of the country's 78 million baby boomers will start turning 65 at a rate of about 8,000 a day. The retirements aren't expected to peak until 2017.
- Morning Edition, 02/11/2008, 7:25 a.m.