Alex Gans at Best Burger

Out of the Margins

How once-overlooked workers are part of the solution to the region’s workforce shortage.

By Andy Steiner | Photography by John Linn

When Alex Gans graduated from high school, he and his parents worried that his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder meant that he would never find a job.

Meanwhile, managers at National Vision in St. Cloud had an open position, but no workers to fill it. The job—sorting piles of eyeglasses by ZIP code for mailing to customers—is tedious. In a labor market hampered by record-low unemployment rates and an aging population, it seemed the optical retailer would never find anyone for the job.

National Vision reached out to WACOSA, a Waite Park-based nonprofit that provides services to people with disabilities. When WACOSA job coach Chad Alred read the position description, he thought of Gans. “We knew the repetition of the work would really appeal to him,” Alred said. “Alex has this great attention to detail and doesn’t get bored.”

The job is a perfect fit, according to Gans, who says he also loves getting a paycheck.

Until he landed the position at National Vision, Gans would fit the description of a marginalized worker, a person who wants a job but has not traditionally been considered employable. In economies where there are more workers than jobs, marginalized workers— including those with disabilities, felons, seniors, immigrants and two-parent homes hindered by the regional child care shortage—often get overlooked by employers who believe it’s too much effort to hire and accommodate their needs.

But in today’s economy, employers in Greater Minnesota are hungry for workers. And many are willing and eager to hire people they hadn’t considered in the past.

“Bringing underutilized workers into the workforce has an almost enlightened self-interest for our region,” said Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development.

Beyond self-interest, Hickman adds that finding jobs for workers formerly considered unemployable is good for everyone. “If there is talent out there that we haven’t found because of language or physical ability or life circumstance, we need to help them find their way into the labor force,” he said. “Right now all of us are open minded about things that previously might have been a barrier. If that can lead to productivity for the employer and new opportunity for the worker, then everybody wins.”


Last fall, WACOSA, in partnership with St. Cloud Area School District 742 and the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation, hosted Project Connect, an event designed to highlight the benefits of hiring workers with disabilities. The program was funded by an Initiative Foundation grant.

“It was an opportunity to have candid conversations about the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities,” said Carrie Peterson, WACOSA fund development manager. About 60 people attended, including employers and representatives from area school districts.

Employers have been known to express concern about hiring people who’ve been traditionally excluded from the workforce, according to Ann Kennedy, WACOSA sales, marketing and communication manager. “I find the number one thing we need to do is to break down the barriers,” she said. “There are oftentimes concerns about hiring marginalized workers, but when you address those issues head-on, it takes the fear factor out of it.”

Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, Inc. (CMJTS), a nonprofit dedicated to finding work for the region’s underutilized job seekers, has hosted a series of “Untapped Workforce” events for employers to highlight the benefits of hiring marginalized workers. There have been three events so far this year. All were funded through Initiative Foundation grants.

Another untapped segment of the workforce is new Americans, especially those with limited English skills. A year ago, CMJTS ran a hospitality training program for a group of 23 local Somali women, who felt like their options for employment in the region were limited to working in a processing plant. “The program was very successful in helping expose these women to new careers,” said Leslie Wojtowicz, development manager at CMJTS.

New Possibilities

Minnesota is changing, and employers increasingly recognize that the job market is also evolving. “At a time when many conventional workers with traditional credentials and long work histories are already employed, employers need to look elsewhere,” Hickman said. “The coronavirus pandemic may change that outlook for the immediate future, but this is a national demographic trend that is going to last for at least 20 years. We need to use every angle possible to surface talent.”

Traci Tapani, chair of the Initiative Foundation’s Board of Trustees, knows this truth better than most. As co-president of Wyoming Machine, a precision sheet-metal company with about 55 employees, she has adapted her hiring practices over time.

When she bought her company back in 1994, Tapani said workers came to her with more job-specific skills and experience. And a different job market meant that she had her pick of candidates. Today, Tapani, who served a three-year term on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board, says she’s had to reframe her definition of the perfect employee.

“Part of our workforce plan in Minnesota is to try to eliminate barriers for people who are seeking employment,” Tapani said. “My tendency now is to think about what barriers I am throwing up that would make it difficult for someone to join me as an employee. How can I be more accessible to someone who has been shut out of the workforce?”

That includes people with felony convictions. “I’ve found out in our own environment that it doesn’t really matter,” said Tapani. She prefers to put her employees’ histories—like that of the former gang member who served time in prison but has been a dedicated worker for over a decade—in the past.

“[This isn’t] charity,” Tapani said. “I need people. It’s a win-win for both of us.” Most of the time, she adds, “You’d never know an employee had a felony if they didn’t tell you. They’re just like everyone else in your facility.”

Likewise, Alex Gans’ wants to be like everyone else who works at National Vision. And, thanks to support from Alred and WACOSA, he’s achieving that. When he got hired, he picked a day each week that he’d buy lunch for his father and his friends. “We go to Best Burger in Waite Park,” he said, proudly. “I buy.”

Success stories

How the Initiative Foundation is supporting marginalized workers.

A $7,000 grant was used to sponsor the Untapped Workforce Series, which highlighted the benefits of hiring Fair Chance workers.

A $5,000 grant supported an internship program to connect local youth with businesses.

A $10,000 grant supported a K-12 Connection webpage, which will help educators, parents and students connect with manufacturers for career development resources, tours, classroom visits, training tools and apprenticeship placement.

A total of $10,000 was given to support services and training scholarships to immigrants, refugees and first-generation Americans to help gain skills to find employment. Avivo also works with high school students to prepare them for the workforce.

A $10,000 grant is helping area schools to partner with local businesses and community organizations to provide innovative opportunities for students to enhance their career options prior to graduation. Rush City, Willow River and Wolf Creek Trio school districts received the first round of grants.