ST. CLOUD – The St. Cloud area has gained about 5,000 jobs since June of last year, but the total number of jobs in the region remains down nearly 4,500 from pre-pandemic levels of June 2019.
"Our economy is coming back — just coming back differently than I think we may have expected," Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), said Thursday at a roundtable discussion with St. Cloud-area business owners and nonprofit leaders.
Grove said the state lost more than 416,000 jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since then, it has gained back about 60% of the lost jobs.
"We hope we're back to where we started by the end of next year in terms of overall jobs in the state," Grove said. "We've got some work to do to get some more jobs generated here."
The discussion was the kickoff to a series of DEED events focused on economic recovery. Grove is scheduled to meet Friday with leaders in Duluth.
In the St. Cloud Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Stearns and Benton counties, the June unemployment rate was 4.7%, down from 7.4% in June 2020.
But the labor force as a whole has dropped significantly from pre-pandemic levels — from about 113,500 people in June 2019 to about 110,160 people this June.
"We used to look at the unemployment rate — that's kind of a hollow statistic at this point because it's artificially low, given people dropping out of the labor force."
He said the lack of child care is the No. 1 reason people on unemployment say they are unable to work. But solutions aren't readily available.
"Our biggest thing is we can't pay our employees. They need a two- or four-year degree, and they're making $13.50 an hour," said Becky Waytashek, owner of Love and Learn Childcare Academy in St. Cloud. "If they have children, they can't even afford to pay for their own children to go to child care."
Waytashek said she provided in-home child care for 20 years and opened a center a few years ago.
The labor shortage and broken child-care system is continuing to affect her business, she said.
"If you don't have the teachers, you can't have a business," she said. "You can open whatever building you want and get somebody in there to go through the licensing stuff, but if you don't have a teacher in the classroom, you don't have child care."
Grove said one solution may be businesses partnering to provide child care for employees. But that has its hurdles, too.
Patti Gartland, president of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. (GSDC), said CentraCare recently looked into providing on-site child care but found the "regulatory hurdles were insurmountable."
"They ended up having to abandon it," she said. "And they've got 13,000 employees, so there's definitely an appetite by the business community."
Teresa Bohnen, president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, reiterated to Grove the results of an informal survey of central Minnesota businesses.
The survey, released by the GSDC in May, cited expanded unemployment benefits as a detriment to hiring.
The enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire in September.
"We're going to see this fall sort of what September ends up looking like," Grove said. "I think it is this collective moment where people are trying to figure out what is a good job in today's economy and what can support [their] family.
"This kind of unprecedented moment of worker power, I think, has some positives to it," Grove said, "but the transition to where we're headed has to be done in a way that keeps our economy moving."
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299