Koochiching County, like most rural communities across the United States, is experiencing a labor shortage. Our existing businesses are stretching past the limits of our available workforce, which only becomes more evident during our summer tourism season. These summer months generate essential revenue critical to many area businesses’ survival in off-peak seasons. It is frustrating to watch businesses struggle to capitalize on this short window of opportunity because they lack the staff needed to cover their expanded hours or services.

Recruiting new businesses while experience population loss can also be a challenge for cities and economic development efforts. It is sort of like the chicken and the egg in deciding which comes first – the jobs or the workforce, when reality requires a balance of the two.

KEDA has attempted to help find a middle ground between these two with their “Your Ticket Home” campaign. This recruitment strategy is based on the local belief that a number of area alumni would live here if only they had the right job opportunities. Your Ticket Home looked to quantify the population of people interested in living and working in Koochiching County by profiling the type of jobs that would make them consider the move. First launched in the early 2000’s, the goal was to create a database that could be used to balance our existing workforce when talking with prospective businesses by helping quantify our “if you build it, they will come” optimism.

Local businesses also spend considerable time and resources recruiting people into our area. Industries seeking employees with specialized skills, training, and education have plenty of competition to attract top candidates. In addition to offering competitive wages and benefits, a challenge these businesses have when it comes to relocating individuals and families, is that the community is under as much scrutiny as the job itself. Recruiters are no longer just selling their company and position; they are selling our lifestyle to applicants requiring relocation. It can be very frustrating when the ideal candidate declines an employment offer due to factors outside of the business’ control. And it is even more disappointing, and costly, to have a relocated employee leave after you moved them here.

Some of the reasons people decline job offers, or decide to leave our area, are beyond our control to change, such as climate, location, or employment opportunities for their partner. There are other items however, that we can impact, and it is encouraging to see positive efforts underway in our community to address items under our control. For example, we have a housing collaborative, a county-wide childcare team, and a new committee recently formed to address ‘community inclusivity,’ to name a few.

While small town living may not be for everyone, a common challenge many people face when moving to a new community is making the connections and friendships that help turn an unfamiliar town into feeling like it is your home. We enthusiastically & whole-heartedly welcome anyone and everyone who made the effort, took the risk, and transferred their lives here. We want to be a community known for being inclusive of all people, no matter what identity box they may check, whether they be visitors or new residents. (Do not forget our community also spends a lot of money and effort to recruit tourists and their experience is important as well. We hope after a visit they want to live here!)

As a community it is important that we show support for all the effort, time, and money these businesses and organizations are spending to bring people into our community. Our population decline has been a slow drain over time, and because it has not looked or felt drastic people may not understand or see all the various impacts it has on our economy. To quote the 2020 City of International Falls Comprehensive Plan (page 27), this decline has become “an established trend that has gone on uninterrupted since 1960 (sixty years ago) and is projected to continue well beyond 2050.” For us to maintain our community structure, and regain lost services and jobs, population growth is absolutely critical.

Bringing new people into our community can create an exciting future for us all! New people bring new perspectives, ideas, and experiences that can benefit our community, grow our schools, and enrich our local culture. The next time you see or meet someone new, please welcome them, share a smile, offer assistance, and get to know them. We pride ourselves on being a special type of people who can live here year-round – consider that these new faces are just members of our tribe finding their way home. Let’s welcome them with open arms.

Heibel is the president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.