Duluth looks to feds for help as it strives to meet growing labor needs

11 July 2023

DULUTH City officials will join an elite group of representatives in Washington, D.C., this week, where Duluth is one of just 16 communities across the nation selected to participate in a “Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy,” a two-day event put together by the National League of Cities in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Victoria Woodards, NLC president and mayor of Tacoma, Washington, said the gathering will kick off a yearlong initiative. Participants will meet with Department of Labor staff who will offer technical assistance tailored to each community’s labor needs.

Woodards said the academy will look at “how we can leverage not only our partnership with the Department of Labor but how we can also leverage other partnerships in our network.” She said participants in the event will have an opportunity to work and learn from one another, too.

More than 250 cities sought to attend the academy, according to Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.

“And the 16 that were selected because of their demonstrated innovation, their commitment to equity and their real leadership in looking at ways to align their own resources to take advantage of these historic federal investments,” she said, referring to infrastructure funds that are now beginning to flow.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson will lead a five-member local team, including Director of Workforce Development Elena Foshay, Economic Developer Emily Nygren, Employment Technician Betsy Hill and SOAR Career Solutions Executive Director Emily Edison. The group’s expenses will be covered in full by the event’s organizers, yet Larson acknowledged the academy will still consume precious city resources.

“I’m really protective of my staff’s time. I think all mayors are. Staff are the biggest resource that we have. But what appealed to me was the challenge and the opportunity to think differently, to integrate equity in more specific and tangible ways and the ability for each city to move in the direction that suits them, both in terms of what are the opportunities and what are the challenges, because our challenges in Duluth are probably kind of similar to some of the others I’ve heard,” she said.

Larson said the Duluth delegation will focus on improving the pipeline of talent for local manufacturers by drawing on a more inclusive and diverse pool of workers. The team is looking to create easier pathways for people to train up and land solid-paying jobs in the manufacturing industry.

That’s not all, though.

“We are really also driven by some of these what I call work-adjacent issues, like child care and housing. So, how we’re bundling all those challenges, investments and opportunities through the funding that’s coming from the federal government, through the innovative thinking of our own team and how we’re leveraging federal resources and then coupling that together with local funding opportunities, so we can boost the workforce in these areas that are important and to make sure we’re investing strategically, with intention into those work-ancillary and work-supportive elements that communities really need to be strong,” Larson said.

Over the next decade Duluth manufacturers anticipate they will need to hire about 7,000 more people, due to projected growth and worker attrition, as current employees reach retirement, Larson said.

“So, it really is a time when we have to be thoughtful and intentional about: How are we planning for that? How are we building the workforce to support manufacturers through that?” she said, noting the important role businesses such as Cirrus Aircraft, ST Paper, ME Global, BendTec and Altec play in the local economy.

Su said Duluth is far from alone in facing a labor challenge.

“It’s time to get serious about: What are the job needs in the local community? How do we align the job demands with worker training programs? And how do we do that in a way that is very intentional and inclusive about who gets to participate?” she said.

Su suggested the successful efforts of Duluth and the 15 other cities participating in the academy this week could eventually serve as a model for other communities around the nation.


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