Twin cities: America's fertile crescent for jobs

Residents in this frigid metropolis are pretty much used to living with small numbers: Temperatures in the winter rarely get too far above zero.

But there's a new little number that's making things much more pleasant here: The unemployment rate is hovering at 1.5 percent - the lowest of any big American city.

The United States as a whole is hardly doing badly. Its 4.5 percent jobless rate is the lowest in 41 years. But Minneapolis - and indeed, the entire upper Midwest - is on the leading edge of one of the most enviable economic decades in history. In fact, 16 of the nation's 25 lowest-unemployment metropolitan areas lie in the Midwest.

Perhaps none, however, provides a better window into the equivalent of a "zero-unemployment" economy than this civic-minded city on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. Here the smaller-than-small rate means job-seekers and job-holders are sitting as pretty as prom queens while suitor companies hustle hard to woo new workers and keep current ones. In fact, the rate has created a veritable culture of vultures among firms - which normally exhibit a Minnesota civility toward each other - trying to fill jobs.

High-tech companies, for instance, are boosting starting salaries by as much as 25 percent a year just to stay competitive.

"I've tried everything," says Wendy Brockhoff, head of human resources for the downtown Hilton hotel. "Hey, I even tried cloning people," she quips. "Well, OK, that didn't go so well." ("Do you want another job?" she asks this reporter.)

The hotel has 35 vacant slots among a staff of 500. She gives $100 checks to employees who refer friends or relatives who get hired. She gives free dinners in a hotel restaurant to employment-agency workers who send three new hires her way.

To keep current workers from bolting, the hotel has made some accommodations. For the Muslims on staff - of which this immigrant-rich city has many -it set aside a room for daily praying.

For women whose religious beliefs dictate head scarves, well, it's not exactly Hilton's standard uniform, but allowances were made. Scarves do have to be white, however. The company recently began offering free English-as-a-second-language classes for employees. Not too many people showed up at first, citing loss of paid work time. Now the hotel actually pays workers to attend.

Sometimes, however, tactics like these aren't enough. Last summer a group of high-tech companies sent a raiding party of sorts to California's Silicon Valley. Its mission: To bring back the techy natives who had deserted their home state by showcasing Minnesota's high quality of life.

The group bombarded the sun-and-smog-filled valley with ads. One billboard pictured a pastoral scene. Its tag line quipped, "Here it's a park. In Minnesota, it's a yard." (There are 949 lakes in the Minneapolis metro area alone, the Chamber of Commerce boasts. For those who don't have big backyards, every house in the city is within six blocks of a park.)

Another ad, playing off California's long commutes, showed a rustic scene and taunted, "A two-hour drive should get you somewhere better than work." (Minneapolis also has the lowest commute time of any big US city - averaging 21.1 minutes.)

TO BE fair, though, the state has the third-highest personal income-tax rate in the nation. And during the Silicon Valley ad campaign, one local paper retaliated by putting a big mosquito on its front page. The pest is often called Minnesota's state bird.

What accounts for the city's minuscule unemployment rate? Its surging, diverse economy is powered by a plethora of corporate giants, from Best Buy Co. Inc. to 3M to General Mills Inc. to Northwest Airlines to Honeywell Inc. It was also one of the 10 American cities that boosted exports the most over the past decade, according to the Commerce Department.

Across the Midwest, economists attribute the low unemployment rates to the strong economy combined with the relative lack of people moving into the region.

Cities in the South and West may have faster growth or job-creation rates, but their influx of new residents means unemployment rates are slightly higher. Other cities, particularly in the Rust Belt, just aren't growing as quickly.

So, cities from Minneapolis to Omaha, Neb., to Des Moines, Iowa, are left to make extraordinary efforts to find qualified people. The Carlson Companies, another big national employer headquartered here, pays as much as $6,000 to employees who bring in a new worker.

There is a little concern, however, that all this growth will change the solid, down-home, Midwestern feel of the place.

Rick Krueger, who spearheaded the Silicon Valley campaign as head of the Minnesota High-Tech Association, had this tongue-in-cheek response to miffed Californians who complained he was stealing their workers:

"Really, we don't want your people. We just want ours back. We just want to set our people free."

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