In the midst of ongoing discussions about the national employment landscape, adjusting to remote work, and the post-Covid hiring challenges still faced by various sectors, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from a somewhat unexpected source: remote cities.

Communities in the far northwestern reaches of Minnesota, for example, have been struggling with worker shortages for some time. While the great State of Minnesota is hardly an untouched frontier, we’re talking about towns that have more in common with the neighboring Canadian prairies and rural North Dakota than they do the modern business meccas of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Chris Farrell, a senior contributor for the public media outlet Marketplace, recently did a piece looking into how such communities have adapted unique hiring practices–and how struggling businesses in other markets might be able to use the same strategies.

Successful remote cities seem to have one thing in common: one or more so-called “anchor companies” that provide consistent, quality employment, usually on a large enough scale that a sub-economy can exist around the workforce. Examples of these anchor companies in rural northern Minnesota include Marvin Windows, Polaris Snowmobiles, Central Boiler, and Digi-Key, a top domestic producer of electronic components.

While these operations can provide an answer as to why these remote cities work, that doesn’t solve the riddle of their own existence and success. Why have these large-scale business endeavors succeeded in the so-called “middle of nowhere” when so many other businesses of all different sizes have struggled to grow or failed entirely in similar geographical and cultural climates?

Anchor Companies and Remote Cities: A Symbiotic Economic Model

The Marketplace piece we referenced earlier astutely points out that the hiring practices which have developed in these far-flung rural cities may provide a glimpse into the future of hiring on a wider scale. As immigration and birth rates dwindle across much of the United States and the average age increases, labor force growth could be headed for long-term deceleration unless the employment landscape–meaning employers and their policies–are able to adapt effectively.

These successful but remote operations in northern Minnesota are each very different in terms of their respective industries and the sort of business they do, but all seem to have one important thing in common: they have honed their hiring and recruitment strategies to attract and retain the right talent within a consistently scarce labor pool. Certainly, this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but one key takeaway from these successful Minnesotan companies is their shared emphasis on treating employees as valuable assets and fellow stakeholders in the operation as a whole.

To build and retain a skilled workforce, these companies invest in the long-term development of their hires through continuing education and skill enhancement programs. In short, they are willing to invest time and money in the project of hiring the right person and developing the necessary skills rather than holding out for the perfect applicant who already has those skills. In the far corners of northern Minnesota, with its modest labor pool, that’s a resume that might never come across your desk.

Of course, building the skills your operation needs is only one part of treating employees like key assets rather than an infinitely replaceable resource. These companies have also adapted to meet many modern worker concerns in terms of flexible scheduling and other morale-boosting policies.

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