ST. CLOUD – While the COVID-19 pandemic has had an undeniably negative effect on every regional economy in the United States, the St. Cloud region saw the smallest over-the-year job decline of any region in Minnesota last year.

Employment numbers released by the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in December show a -4.2 percent change in employment in the St. Cloud region from December 2019 through December 2020. That’s compared to -6.3 percent in Rochester, -7.9 percent in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, and -8.3 percent in Duluth.

Patti Gartland, President of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC), says the St. Cloud area has fared better than other regions throughout the state due to a diverse economy helping mitigate the extreme impacts of COVID-19.

“We’re not heavily focused in any single industry,” Gartland explained. “We’ve got a pretty great, diverse offering of opportunities, and that bodes well for the region. We do have a few anchor pillars that bring strength. Our center of education creates a lot of employment opportunities. Healthcare and health services – that’s a significant sector for us. And the manufacturing industry – with fairly good diversity among those manufacturing entities.”

However, Gartland says other facets of the end-of-year data weren't so uplifting.

“When you start looking at labor participation rates, our region has not fared as well in that area,” Gartland said. “There are people who had been in the job market, or had been looking for work, who are no longer doing so. Now, we’re focused on what those reasons are, and how we get past those obstacles and impediments and get that labor participation rate back up.”

Gartland says access to childcare and COVID-19-related safety concerns are two major factors keeping people from reentering the labor force.

“We’ve got households that have gone from two incomes to a single income because of remote learning,” Gartland said. “And, they need to have someone at home with their remote learners to help facilitate that process.”

Gartland says access to childcare was an issue in the St. Cloud area before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the last year has seen an even larger drop in the number of providers around the region. The GSDC, in partnership with the United Way of Central Minnesota and other local agencies, has created the Central Minnesota Community Childcare Fund Initiative. The project, designed to pair families 9in need with affordable childcare options, is currently in an early stage of development.

“It’s not a one-act correction for childcare,” she explained. “There are a lot of people who need to be at the table in order to craft those solutions and move the needle. We knew childcare was a challenge before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.”

Gartland says a new virtual platform called Around Cloud Tutors, connecting trained tutors with families and students in need of remote learning assistance, has already launched.

“We now actually have 40 tutors who have been admitted into the program, gone through training and are available to provide that tutoring service to students in need,” Gartland explained. “So, that’s how we use the data. What are the solutions that are needed out there to navigate through what we’re seeing as impacts on our labor force?”

Overall, the St. Cloud area’s four main economic sectors outperformed the rest of the state, seeing a less than 6 percent employment decline, according to DEED. Education & Health Services dropped. 5.6 percent, Trade, Transportation and Utilities dropped 1.7 percent, Manufacturing lost 3.3 percent, and Construction trades dropped by 3.9 percent.

To learn more about the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation’s initiatives, visit their website.

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