With the help of the Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF), manufacturers in southwest Minnesota are taking a fresh look at the way they train, retain, and support their employees.

While these manufacturers continue to contend with inflation, supply chain issues, and worker shortages — such as an unemployment rate between 3 and 4% — SWIF saw its region’s employers struggling and looked outward to find solutions.

The result of this digging is the state’s first-ever Employer Resource Network (ERN). SWIF has partnered with ERN USA, an organization that combines business development with employee support services and which now spans 11 states. Described by its founders as data-driven and results-oriented, the program seeks to improve employee retention and productivity by supporting workers and their families directly, in both their professional and personal lives.

Manufacturers with high turnover are increasingly looking inward, trying to build “sticky” company cultures that are attractive to their workers. ERN turns this idea on its head. Instead of offering incentives to encourage employees to continue working, ERN removes the “pull” factors that might force an employee to leave — whether that be a lack of childcare, reliable transportation, or personal conflict at home.

“It is really an investment,” says Diana Anderson, president and CEO of SWIF. “It’s a benefit to the employees. It provides them with resources and an on-site person to help them navigate challenges that oftentimes have nothing to do with work.”

To take advantage of the program, companies buy shares in the ERN. Based on their size and their employees’ needs, employers can then “buy the time” of an onsite Success Coach, who serves as a counselor, advocate, and veritable life coach for all employees.

Though the Minnesota model remains in the early stages, employers around the country with longer experiences with ERN have seen dramatic results. Based on turnover rates, increased productivity, and the cost of training new workers, companies working with an ERN — the first of which was founded in 2007 — have averaged a 500% return on their investment.

From health care to gaming and rubber to truck equipment, participating employers — both big and small — represent a diverse cross-section of Minnesotan industry. To start, SWIF’s ERN will serve five clients: Bethesda, Minnesota Rubber & Plastics, Towmaster Trailers & Truck Equipment, Jackpot Junction Casino & Hotel, and Jonti-Craft.

Though expansion is the ultimate goal, for now, SWIF will stick to these initial five employers. Once the operation is reviewed, refined, and scaled up, SWIF hopes to expand its reach into even more areas of southwest Minnesota.

Operating as the person on the ground for Minnesota’s first network is Jean Spaulding, who will be the Success Coach for SWIF’s five inaugural companies. No more than a text away, Jean is someone to “bounce ideas off” and connect employees with the resources available to them. Whether looking to improve one’s soft skills or work on one’s financial literacy, a Success Coach can support workers and prevent any problems from growing bigger, like financial insecurity or lack of elder care.

“We really try to interact with the employees early,” says Jean. “That way we can start to get to the root of what’s causing [any work-related] issues.”

Early reports from the program are encouraging. A few clients have even begun advertising their ERN participation as a recruitment tool.

According to Jean, some have seen employees mention ERN to friends and relatives based on positive experiences; members of these personal networks, impressed with the company culture and clear commitment to its employees, then applied to the company themselves.

Anderson believes the impact of an ERN reaches far beyond a single company. According to her, these networks are closely tied to SWIF’s mission of building strong, successful families and communities within southwest Minnesota. It’s much more than economic development — it’s about supporting “communities, businesses, families and kids from cradle to career.”

“It’s a win-win-win,” Anderson says. “It’s a win for employees, it’s a win for employers, and it’s a win for the community.”

Featured story in the Spring 2022 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

Return to Spring 2022 magazine