Baby boomer retirement to transform rural Minn., demographers say

Polaris plant
Workers prepare engines for installation into Polaris' Ranger side-by-side vehicles at the company's plant in Roseau, Minn. on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The plant employs 1,400 people, making it the largest employer in town. The wave of retiring baby boomers means Polaris will have to hire hundreds of new workers over the next few decades just to maintain current staffing levels.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The Polaris manufacturing plant in Roseau employs 1,400 people who make snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. That makes it, by far, the largest employer in town.

Business is picking up. Polaris human resources director Brooke Coffey plans to hire another 200 workers in the next few months. That's not an easy task in far northern Minnesota.

"It's challenging in rural Minnesota whenever you have a hiring spike or a ramp-up," Coffey said. "It is very challenging to attract the number of people that you would like to get to be selective."

Filling positions at Polaris is about to become even more challenging, as 40 percent of the plant's workers are baby boomers between the ages of 47 and 65.

The oldest members of the baby boom generation turn 65 this year, and that has huge implications for Minnesota, where about 700,000 will reach retirement age in the next decade. That's almost as many as in the previous four decades combined.

State demographers say the effect on the workforce will be felt in every corner of the state.

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Brooke Coffey
Brooke Coffey is director of human resources for the Polaris manufacturing plant in Roseau. Coffey says replacing the hundreds of baby boomer retirees leaving the plant in the coming years will be a challenge.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

In Roseau, Coffey projects workers at retirement age will more than double over the next five years.

That means Polaris will have to hire hundreds of new workers just to maintain current levels.

Coffey said the key to attracting so many workers in a shrinking labor force is to offer competitive wages and attractive benefits.

"It's hard to really go do much about it, but planning for it, understanding the challenge and how to meet that challenge is going to be important over the next several years," he said.

Other big employers in Roseau are expecting similar challenges. The local hospital, LifeCare Medical Center, projects the number of nurses reaching retirement age will nearly double in five years.

Hospital spokeswoman Deb Haugen said officials there already are aggressively recruiting health care workers. She said they focus especially on encouraging local high school students to consider health care careers.

"We can't let our guard down," Haugen said. "We need to continually look at that future and say 'Are we doing what we need to do to continue to be fully staffed?'"

The Roseau School District will have to get more aggressive about recruiting, too. Typically the district sees just one or two teacher retirements a year. Last year there were four. This year there are five, and Superintendent Larry Guggisberg projects that pace will continue well into this decade.

Deb Haugen
Deb Haugen is senior leader of marketing at LifeCare Medical Center in Roseau. Haugen says the number of nurses reaching retirement age will nearly double in five years.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"We're going to need to replace them, and we feel that's going to be a difficult thing to do," Guggisberg said.

Some retirement age teachers are hanging on to their jobs longer, either to maintain health care benefits or because the recession has reduced their pension payouts. But eventually there could be a shortage of teachers, especially in areas like math, science and special education.

Guggisberg said there's a positive side to the retirement trend. As boomers retire, it will save financially strapped school districts money, as senior teachers with large salaries are replaced with new hires. It's a way for districts to reduce their budgets without layoffs.

He also sees a wave of baby boomer professionals retiring in town.

"I've had my accountant for 22 years in Roseau and he says he's retiring. My doctor is retiring. My lawyer, the attorney that we use is retiring," Guggisberg said. "So the people that I've relied on, now I have to start looking for a new dynamic in my personal life."

Demographers say the loss of baby boomers from the workforce will be nothing short of transformational. The number of young people entering the workforce will decline.

Larry Guggisberg
Roseau School District Superintendent Larry Guggisberg expects the number of baby boomer teacher retirements to increase in the coming years. He says there may be a shortage of replacements in some areas, including special education, math and science.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

By the 2020s, the state's labor force growth rate will reach record low levels. State economist Tom Stinson says that means more counties will see population declines. But he said some aging communities could see rejuvenation, as young immigrants come to Minnesota to fill jobs.

"This is not something to be feared. It's something to be aware of and to plan for," Stinson said. "And the individuals, the firms, the communities that figure out how to deal with it, they're going to be furthest along toward success in the next two decades.

Most of the increase in 65 and older population in Minnesota during this decade will occur in the Twin Cities metro area. The baby boomer retirement trend will be largely over by 2030.