Pandemic creating workforce training opportunities

If there’s one good thing to come out of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Greater Minnesota has more opportunities to train people to fill ongoing job vacancies.

That was what researchers at the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development told lawmakers Monday during a House workforce and business development committee hearing.

“The data says, essentially, we now have a pool of workers to engage, particularly from occupations in food preparation and service,” said Kelly Asche, research associate at the center. “We also have a significant workforce shortage in nearly all other occupations in rural Minnesota.”

The pandemic and subsequent government regulations have caused significant unemployment among food service, sales and office and administrative support jobs in particular across the state. At the same time, job vacancies have shrunk somewhat in Greater Minnesota but still remain above 3% overall.

That’s a healthy number of open jobs, Asche said. It shows the pandemic hasn’t done much to affect rural Minnesota’s longstanding demand for more workers.

In south-central and southwest Minnesota, there’s growing demand for workers in health care, community and social services, transportation and moving goods, farming, and computer and mathematics-related jobs, according to state and federal economic data.

All of those industries require advanced training, from certification programs to two- or four-year college degrees. While workforce development organizations have resources to help current clients get retrained, Asche told lawmakers many organizations worry about a sudden influx of unemployed workers who want training once the pandemic’s effects lessen.

Greater Minnesota has faced a growing need for workers in recent years as Minnesota’s population shifts from living in rural to urban areas. In rural areas across the state, job vacancies were at 5% or higher before the pandemic, reaching 6% in southwestern Minnesota.

Since the pandemic hit, open job vacancies in our region went from slightly above 6% to about 3.7%.

More people have been leaving the state’s labor pool due to the pandemic than in recent years as well. Labor numbers fluctuate throughout the year as some jobs are seasonal, but those numbers didn’t bounce back as effectively in 2020 compared to 2019, Asche said.

“Having less people participating in the labor force also compounds issues that we had prior to the pandemic,” said Diane Halvorson, executive director of the South Central Workforce Council.

Halvorson and other local workforce and economic development officials say they’re hearing from workers who are afraid to go back to work because of the pandemic or have to remain at home to help children with school.

There are opportunities for those who want training now, however. South Central College and Minnesota State University have recently ramped up their health care programs, while Region Nine Development Commission is working with MSU to research future workforce needs. In addition, Region Nine is focused on developing training programs to address workforce shortages in manufacturing.

“We have focused on advanced manufacturing and really having more conversations about filling labor,” said Nicole Griensewic, executive director of Region Nine.

Food, retail and hospitality unemployment has hit the Mankato area harder than in other communities throughout the region because of Mankato’s status as a rural hub. Yet Mankato is weathering the pandemic better than other communities for that same reason.

“We do have a higher concentration of industries in Greater Mankato that maybe haven’t been as negatively impacted,” said Jessica Beyer, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth.

That also means Mankato is uniquely positioned to take advantage of workforce training. Halvorson said it’s relatively easy to cross-train a person who has worked in service industries such as restaurants or retail for a variety of health care jobs as the two sectors often require similar skill sets in dealing with people. And there are plenty of jobs available in health care at the moment, from janitorial work to office support to machine technicians, among other things.

“There’s quite a wide range of needs out there,” Halvorson said.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development recommends lawmakers make workforce funding a little more flexible this session in how organizations can spend state money and what organizations may be eligible for funding.

Asche and other experts also recommend more support to connect workforce development groups with employers who can give input on the workers they need, as well as more help reaching out to unemployed Minnesotans.

Halvorson also recommends unemployed area residents reach out to local workforce development centers sooner than later.

View the Free Press article here.

A call for racial understanding in Greater Minnesota

Minnesota’s summer of protests, violence, and personal and political reckoning brought issues of race and racism front and center in 2020. For many Greater Minnesota communities, however, making their towns more welcoming to everyone was a priority long before then. 

Motivated by a variety of concerns, many leaders have partnered with University of Minnesota Extension to look more closely at their communities, become educated about the experiences of people of color, and create local change that makes a difference.

Extension has been redesigning community leadership and civic engagement programs to address diversity, inclusion, and racism—an effort that has certainly accelerated since this past summer. In 2020, eight communities welcomed underrepresented audiences into Extension leadership programs. And from Grand Marais to Mankato, community groups have invited Extension to facilitate learning about cultural competency, unconscious biases, equity, racism, and intercultural competence.

“For us,” says Nicole Griensewic of Southern Minnesota’s Region Nine Development Commission, “it’s about our workforce. We know we need to be a region that is viewed as a welcoming place. Not only do we need to attract workers, we have and will need to continue focusing on retaining our talent.”

“Communities that start new leadership programs often recognize that their community needs people to step up—whether their name is Anderson, Ahmed, or Hernandez,” says Holli Arp, who in 2018 led Extension’s leadership and civic engagement educators to explore ways to invite underrepresented groups into local leadership.

Still other communities believe they need the perspective of diverse leaders to respond to their changing rural demographics. 

“More than 39 percent of students in Willmar’s Public Schools have a home language other than English,” says Toby Spanier, leadership and civic engagement educator and leader of the Vision 2040 educational cohort. “So there’s no denying that other cultures are part of the fabric of rural communities. In order to serve all residents well, we need people from those communities to be part of the fabric of leadership, too.”

EDA grant targets south central Minnesota manufacturers hit hard by pandemic


NORTH MANKATO, Minn. (KEYC) — A $74,552 Economic Development Administration grant is set to aid south central Minnesota manufacturers.

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, of Minnesota, says the grant will help manufacturers and communities in the region recover from economic losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of businesses have struggled with COVID. Some businesses have done just fine and others have been deeply challenged and this is a way of helping those businesses and helping those that work for them,” Smith stated.

The funds will go to the Region Nine Development Commission to help the group establish a disaster and economic recovery plan for manufacturing and job losses in local communities.

Manufacturing accounts for more than 22% of the jobs in the region.

“Manufacturing is the backbone of our regional economy. In eight of our nine counties, it’s the highest industry,” RNDC Executive Director Nicole Griensewic said.

The project begins in March and will last through 2022.

“We are really working on trying to make sure their voices are heard. Work with stakeholders, those in industry, plant managers, individuals that are part of the logistic providers and so part of that is going to be really working with them to have an advisory committee and interviews with these industry stakeholders, plant managers, etc. of smaller and larger manufacturing businesses,” added Griensewic.

Region Nine is made up of Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, and Watonwan counties.

View the KEYC video here.

Region Nine awarded funding for disaster and economic recovery plan

MANKATO, Minn. (KEYC) – The Region Nine Development Commission is awarded thousands of dollars to establish a disaster and economic recovery plan for the region.

The more than $74,000 in funding comes from the federal Economic Development Administration.

Region Nine plans to work with community partners to develop a COVID-19 recovery plan for the regional manufacturing clusters that have already been impacted by flooding in 2019 and trade uncertainties in 2019 and 2020. During the planning process, there will be opportunities for public input from community members, academic institutions, industry partners, and public entities.

Copyright 2021 KEYC. All rights reserved.

View online.

Guest Column: Collaboration is the way to move forward

When I served in Congress, I was dedicated to representing my southern Minnesota district. I was not there to simply vote the party line; I did my best to take into consideration the differing political ideologies that existed at the time among my constituents. As a legislator, I made it a priority to develop partnerships with other legislators — in both parties — to find common ground and to influence legislation to the benefit of the communities I served.

Tim Penny

As divisions in our country and state have become amplified in recent years, I believe it is important to emphasize that collaboration is central to how we will be able to move forward. Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, collaboration is a key value and a guiding force in how we do our work.

SMIF’s vision is that southern Minnesota will be a prosperous and growing region with vibrant communities, innovative and successful economies and engaged and valued citizens. As we celebrate SMIF’s 35th anniversary this year, and more than $121 million invested in our 20-county region during that time, we know that we would not have been able to make progress on this vision without the many partners that have supported our efforts over the past three and a half decades.

Partnerships have made it possible for SMIF to award 4,300 grants since our inception. For example, we work with Ace Hardware and Arrow Hardware & Paint, to distribute paint to communities for projects like murals through our Paint the Town Grants. We partner with publishers ABDO and Capstone to distribute thousands of books to children birth through age 5 through our Early Literacy Grants (and many more thousands of books get distributed through our early childhood programming). We recently partnered with Region Nine Development Commission and SE MN Together to launch a special Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant program, awarding $160,000 to organizations that are increasing equity and inclusion within communities and supporting entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds.

Since 1986 we have been able to support more than 700 businesses through our lending program because of our partnerships with financial institutions and economic development agencies. We have also partnered with our 30 Community Foundations by providing $823,000 in matching grants over the years, offering direct support to their communities.

Our commitment to collaboration made it possible for us to distribute $12.1 million in COVID-19 response dollars. SMIF partnered with the state of Minnesota throughout 2020 to distribute grants and loans to support children, child care providers, entrepreneurs and communities in our region during this crisis. Most recently we partnered with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to distribute $10.2 million in Small Business Relief Grants, helping keep more than 1,000 southern Minnesota businesses afloat. We also worked with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to award $180,000 in Early Care and Wrap Around Grants to fund early care and education wrap around services for children birth to age eight from underserved populations impacted by the pandemic.

It is impossible to name every partner that has made a difference in SMIF’s work, but we are appreciative of each and every one of them. Without this culture of collaboration, we would have a vision for our region’s prosperity without the means to execute that vision. Likewise, Minnesota — and our country — will make progress when we all work together.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.

View article.

A Candid Conversation with Mayor Najwa Massad

Najwa Massad Mankato Mn“Coming to the United States as an immigrant and establishing a small business shows how we are the heartbeat of this country. I believe in uplifting small businesses because of that personal connection that people get in the hospitality industry—we are the heart of our community.” —Mayor Najwa Massad  

One of the most inspiring political figures in Mankato is Mayor Najwa Massad. I had the chance to speak in-depth with Najwa who uncovered her timeless life story beyond serving as Mayor. Back in 1960, Najwa immigrated from Lebanon when just 5 years old, settling in Mankato with her mother, father, and brother. She attended St. John’s Catholic School, and grew up in a modest household.  

Because the price to make phone calls to Lebanon was expensive at the time, her mother was unable to afford keeping in contact with her sister, and had not seen her in 11 years. After over a decade, she joined her mother and brother on a trip to Lebanon, where she met her husband, John. She continued to stay in Lebanon for her marriage, and had a daughter named Murray. “I’m very proud that [my daughters] go back to that heritage of where they came from such as customs that I carried from my parents, and they are carrying the same customs moving on. Family is # 1, and that’s the most important part because without your family, you don’t have a base,” Massad says. 

A civil war broke out in Lebanon that escalated during their visit to the U.S., so they decided to settle in the U.S. again. It was challenging at first because they had very little money, and her husband could not speak English, so it was hard for him to find a job. Najwa also faced the challenge to break away from pre-imposed gender roles that women could not work, as she knew better than that. She soon got a job at a grocery store with her father’s support. Because of John’s exceptional talent as a master chef, they had to return to Lebanon to sustain their family business. But, this was when the civil war was at its peak. “We had to escape in the middle of the night to get from our hometown to Beirut—we got onto this boat because we had our American green cards. There was an Israeli ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that we realized was a cargo ship for animals,” Massad says.  

She describes the agony of being cramped together with 250 passengers getting sick in the most unsanitary conditions. On a trip that was supposed to take 2 hours, it took over 24 hours to get to Cyprus. When they got off the boat, the most beautiful sight they saw was the American flag flying on the dock. After spending the night in Cyprus, they got on a plane back to the U.S. and didn’t look back. In 1984, they opened their first restaurant featuring French-Mediterranean cuisine, naming it after their first daughter, Murray. After 24 years, they returned to Lebanon to visit her mother-in-law. “It was surreal because we left Lebanon when the bombs were falling. Beirut was a disaster with rubble everywhere…people were just running in the streets, and it was absolutely horrible. And then we go back, those people are resilient…Beirut was beautiful again, it was gorgeous,” Massad says.  

When talking about her leadership style, she describes herself as nurturing and a good listener. She believes in listening to people with empathy and compassion, regardless of how big or small their issues are. Instead of arguing with them, she wants to be that person who actually understands what they’re going through. As the daughter of immigrants, she is one of those dynamic leaders who understands coming to a new country and feeling like a fish out of the water. People just want to be heard, and they want to know that someone is willing to actually listen to what they say. “When we come into public office, it’s not about us anymore. It’s about the people that voted for us, and the people that we serve. We all have disagreements, but in the end, we have to get back together to see what we can do best,” Massad says.  

A community thrives when people are welcoming and engaged, while being eager to learn about other cultures. Najwa has a burning passion to learn from diverse perspectives as she thinks about how to best serve everyone. She describes how working in a male-dominated space motivates her to be forthcoming and eager to establish her seat at the table of decision-making. “When you shake somebody’s hand, bring them down to their knees,” Massad says. What makes the Massad restaurant business so successful is John’s unique approach to making the delicious shawarma. “Mankato made the shawarma famous, shawarma made Mankato famous,” Massad says.  

Due to the stark contrast in cultural cuisine, John had to develop a clever way to tailor menu items to the American palate while also retaining its authentic flavor. It took a while before Murray’s became successful because they had to learn the ropes of managing a restaurant, since they had no prior experience before. As Murray’s grew popular, they opened locations at the Civic Center, and River Hills Mall, called Massad’s. “To say that we were insane, it was. Mentally and physically, it was challenging,” Massad says.  

Because life was busy raising two girls and managing three restaurants, they eventually let go of Murray’s to build off the Massad franchise. Till this day, their hard work and determination have blossomed into the true vision of the American Dream. Not only are they serving delicious food, but are in the process of bringing innovative ideas to life. For the past 25 years, they poured their life savings and energy into building an automated shawarma machine with the possibility of selling it internationally. “Everything seems to go forward and then ten steps back, but now, we are moving ahead with it. Our dream right now is to build this machine and sell it throughout the Middle East and Canada,” said Massad.  

Right now, they have expanded their Massad’s franchise to eight Scheels Sporting Goods locations, shipping out all the ingredients and teaching workers how to properly make the sandwich. Her younger daughter, Carla, has taken on the leadership role of serving as the CEO for two of their restaurants. Meanwhile, Najwa works full-time (managing and cooking) at their Civic Center location, feeding between 1,000-2,500 people. “Whenever you’re an entrepreneur, always hire someone that’s smarter than you. That’s when you can trust yourself to know [that your employees] are good at what they do. I have wonderful staff, I have excellent staff—they take care of me, I take care of them.” Massad says.  

Najwa is very clear that her business makes up who she is, and she carries these values as Mayor of Mankato. She does her best to coordinate her work schedule to meet with individuals because connection will always be important to her—especially when representing this great city. She also advocates and gets involved with causes that are important to her like YWCA and Greater United Way. “Mankato is a community. It’s a family and this community, and if someone needs something, we’re all there for each other. All in all, this is one damn good community with a heart of gold, and that’s why I wanted to be the mayor,” Massad says. 


By: Monali Bhakta, Lead for Minnesota Fellow
Photo from Mankato Life: Mankato Staple – Najwa Massad & Najwa’s Catering

Four cities earn spots in economic growth program

The Free Press

MANKATO — Montgomery, Mapleton, Springfield and Wells will be the latest cities to participate in a program aimed at supporting economic growth in small towns.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) announced it accepted the cities into its Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program Friday. Blue Earth and Le Sueur were among the area cities participating in the program over the last three years.


Stakeholders from each of the four chosen communities will work with SMIF, Region Nine Development Commission and the University of Minnesota extension to promote “sustainable entrepreneur-focused development,” according to a release.

“We are excited to work with these communities over the next three years as they explore different approaches to supporting entrepreneurs and economic growth through this program,” stated Pam Bishop, SMIF’s vice president of economic development, in the release.


“We know from our experience with the first cohort that the REV program will have a lasting impact on how these small towns approach economic development.”

The program’s tools include mapping out impacts over time. Stakeholders will also create an inventory of existing entrepreneurs in their communities.

Montgomery, Springfield and Wells will participate on their own. Mapleton’s inclusion will actually be a collaboration with Amboy, Good Thunder and Minnesota Lake, which are all part of the Maple River School District.

Cities with fewer than 5,000 people within SMIF’s 20-county region were eligible for the program. The program will begin in 2021 and run through 2023.

View the article online here.

10-21-20 DEI Episode 9-Marjorie Zoe Negron Munoz

Listen here.

Public Hearing Notice

Region Nine Development Commission will hold its annual FY2021 budget hearing at 6:10p.m., Wednesday, June 17, 2020 via Zoom. Email Heather Bartelt, executive assistant, at for more information The proposed budget is $1,093,470.