Amid record low unemployment, Minnesota officials highlight underutilized labor pools

Five people talk on a bus
Asher Tholl talks about his work for the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority with state Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove (right) on Monday in Eagan, as Stefan Evers cleans a window and John Jamer (seated) and Parker Leagjeld listen.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Summer is a busy time at the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority garage in Eagan. It's the time of year that the buses turn off their commuter routes for an annual deep cleaning.

But with the state's unemployment rate at a record-low 1.8 percent in June, the company that services those buses wasn't sure it could find anybody to do it.

"We need summer detailers and everybody is kind of struggling to find workers," said Allie McCollough, human resources director at Schmitty & Sons.

Enter Asher Tholl, Stefan Evers, John Jamer and Parker Leagjeld — four guys looking for work and now climbing daily onto the commuter buses to shine the windows, clean the air filters, scrub off graffiti and spiff up the floors, and earning $16 an hour.

"Wipe down the seats, get underneath them, remove the cushions," Tholl recounted Monday, as he gave Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove a quick tour of their work on one of the buses parked at the Eagan garage.

Tholl and his colleagues are among 140 teens and adults with disabilities who work with Great Work, an employment assistance agency in Lakeville. And they're part of the solution to a critically tight labor market.

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In June, Minnesota had the lowest state unemployment rate ever recorded in the U.S., and that means workers are harder than ever to find. Harder — but not impossible. Grove's visit to the MVTA garage on Monday was part of his agency's "Summer of Jobs" push to encourage employers to dig a little deeper into the labor market.

He's previously highlighted other potential labor pools, including people over 55, immigrants and people leaving correctional facilities.

He said the disabled community offers another opportunity for employers in Minnesota who are struggling to find workers, with nearly three job openings for every person looking for a job. Grove said nearly 10 percent of Minnesotans report having at least one disability, and employers can find real value among them.

"People with disabilities come with a lot of abilities, actually, and when you look at the loyalty, the problem-solving ability, just the hard work ethic that you see in this community — we think more employers that should be aware that there are actually a lot of people with disabilities in our economy that can do great work,” he said.

State officials also say that the booming economy offers an unprecedented opportunity to spread economic benefits and address some of the disparities in employment among communities like disabled Minnesotans, who have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the workforce.

The state also offers training and recruiting assistance to disabled workers, which can help make those matches, said Dee Torgerson, director of Vocational Rehabilitation Services with DEED.

"It's definitely an untapped labor pool. We'd love to make more connections with employers around the state," Torgerson said.

Chelsie Gibbs founded Great Work in 2020 to help make those connections. She said many of her clients previously would have entered transition programs as they aged out of high schools, and likely would have gone to sheltered workshops or other employment alternatives.

"We really leaned hard on that, in Minnesota," she said.

But she said in the past 10 years, the state has turned toward what she calls community jobs — paying gigs that are part of the regular job market.

"I really didn't like what I saw, and I wanted to create some new opportunities for this population that is really capable and has some great skills," she said. "And (I) wanted to support businesses."

More information about DEED’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services is available online at careerforcemn.com.