Connecting With Young Professionals

If you read the news headlines, things are looking rather bleak for the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs. There’s a workforce shortage slamming businesses across the country, and workforce participation levels are historically low. Business owners lament their inability to find qualified workers, while young graduates lament their inability to find well-paying jobs.

But across southern Minnesota, things are looking pretty good.

Young workers in the nine-county region (Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca and Watonwan counties) aged 20-24 have a labor force participation rate of 81 percent, while workers 25-44 are even more engaged, at 89 percent. Both numbers are far higher than the region’s overall rate of 69 percent.

Clearly, the young people of southern Minnesota are diving into the workforce and growing into the leaders of tomorrow. There are no doubt several reasons for this, but one clearly stands out: the strong networking groups available to young professionals across southern Minnesota. Usually called “Young Professionals” groups, these organizations allow Minnesota’s youngest generation of workers to gather together, network, develop professionally and become engaged in their community.

New Ulm HYPE

New Ulm has had a Young Professionals group  called HYPE (Helping Young Professionals Evolve) since 2010 when New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Audra Shaneman approached a group of young professionals about starting something. Since then, the Chamber has continued to support HYPE, though the group plans its own schedule and events.

While the official kickoff only included four people, HYPE has now grown to more than 45 paid members and a six-person leadership team. The group isn’t limited to New Ulm, either; there are members from Nicollet, Sleepy Eye, Courtland and other surrounding cities.

“You don’t have to live or work in New Ulm,” said vice chair Jessica Staddick. “You just have to want to be a part of this community. [HYPE] helps members meet new people and make new friends, and we’ve got so many great speakers and relevant topics to our age group.”

“I think that employers definitely encourage new employees to be part of the group, especially new employees that recently moved to the area, because it’s a great way to make those connections and be involved in something other than just going to work every day,” added Kayla Ruch, past chair of the group.

New Ulm HYPE members recently created comfort care bags for cancer patients.
New Ulm HYPE members recently created comfort care bags for cancer patients.

Staddick said the group hosts two events every month. The first is a luncheon with a guest speaker. Topics have ranged from work/life balance to insurance to health. The second is “Topics on Tap,” an informal get-together where members discuss current issues. There are also other special events, such as business tours and the annual “Welcome to the Party” event in February, which is a networking event intended to introduce New Ulm residents and workers to each other in a casual atmosphere.

“We try to bring in unique things that we think our age group will be interested in,” Staddick said.

Rachel Smith, current chair of the group, said they are also trying to become more service-oriented. Members recently partnered with Thrivent to create comfort care bags for cancer patients at the New Ulm Medical Center, and they have also volunteered with Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest.

To become a HYPE member, a one-time fee of $20 is required. To learn more, visit the group’s website at, check out the Facebook page “New Ulm YP” or email

Sleepy Eye Young Professionals

The Sleepy Eye Young Professionals group is probably the newest in southern Minnesota, having started in early 2015. According to Trista Barka, executive director of the Sleepy Eye Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber came up with the idea of forming a Young Professionals group in an effort to attract and retain young workers in the Sleepy Eye area.

“We’ve been very blessed to have a number of individuals who grew up in the area and decided to come back to town to work,” she said. “We saw as a Chamber that there was a critical need to make sure those young people felt committed and involved in Sleepy Eye. The goal of the group is to empower members with a voice in business and community, educate members to better their careers, and engage members to cultivate a future in the Sleepy Eye area.”

Five Chamber members formed a YP committee, focusing on three areas: volunteering, forming relationships, and professional and personal development. The group already has 58 members, with dozens  more prospective members that the committee is working to recruit.

“We’re fairly new in the game, so people are excited about the group because it’s something new and different,” Barka said. “The next step will be to keep that momentum going.”

Sleepy Eye’s group featured a workshop on discovering member personality types and how to interact with others.
Sleepy Eye’s group featured a workshop on discovering member personality types and how to interact with others.

Barka said members have expressed the most interest in professional and personal development, as well as volunteering, so that’s where the committee is focusing right now. So far, the group has been meeting quarterly, though there are occasionally special events. The official kickoff was in May 2015, and there was a networking picnic in the summer. In November, the group invited a presenter to lead a “True Colors” workshop, which focused on figuring out what kind of personality each member had and how to best interact with other people.

“I was amazed to see how many people showed up,” said Mikayla Mages, a member of the Sleepy Eye Young Professionals Committee. “Sometimes it can take a while for new groups to take flight, but ours took off from the get-go.”

Mages is a Sleepy Eye native who moved away for college but returned and found a job at the Sleepy Eye Medical Center. She said the Young Professionals group has helped her establish professional relationships and grow in her own skills—but the best part, is how it has helped her become more deeply involved in her community.

“As young professionals, we’re really working together to build up our community and the organizations we belong to,” she said. “Sometimes it can be difficult to take the first step, especially if that step is outside our own comfort zone, but in this case I think it’s a step worth taking.”

Barka said the committee hasn’t planned out the 2016 events yet, though she does hope to organize a networking event with another area Young Professionals group.

To join the Sleepy Eye Young Professionals, members must be 20-40 years old, live or work in Sleepy Eye and pay an annual fee of $20. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page, “Sleepy Eye Young Professionals,” call the Chamber at (507) 794-4731.

Mankato Young Professionals

Mankato has one of the largest and most active Young Professionals groups in southern Minnesota—and perhaps the state. Since it was formed in 2008, it’s attracted 208 members from 117 member companies, and the numbers only continue to grow.

According to Greater Mankato Growth Executive Director Jonathan Zierdt, the idea to form a group of young professionals in the community came up as early as the inception of Greater Mankato Growth itself.

“At the time, organizations like ours weren’t spending that much time thinking about talent: talent development, talent retention, talent attraction,” he explained. “We need to have an intentional, deliberate way to attract talent, retain it and engage it in the community. The focus on the Millennials is a critical issue to us as an organization. It’s important enough to say we want to dedicate organizational resources towards that audience because they’re important to our businesses and our community.”

By the end of 2008, the YP organization had about 80 members. Within three years, the number had grown to about 100. At that point, Zierdt said, GMG conducted a survey to see how many Young Professionals were still working for their original employers. The answer was about 80 percent of the 100 members. He added that when you estimate companies lose $50,000 per every employee who decides to take another job, that means Mankato companies saved $4 million by retaining those 80 YP members.

GMG Young Professionals members are able to tour local businesses throughout the year.
GMG Young Professionals members are able to tour local businesses throughout the year.

As the group grew in members, it also started offering more events. Nathan Hanel, 2015 chair of the Mankato YP and a member since 2008, said the group originally focused on three aspects: professional development, social engagement and community service. However, since many of the YP members were already active in their own volunteer efforts, the group eventually decided to focus on the first two aspects.

One of the most popular offerings is the mentorship program offered twice yearly. Area professionals are asked to mentor groups of YP members. Eight YP members will meet with a mentor for a casual lunch once a month, meeting different mentors throughout a four-month period.

Hanel said the group tries to offer other professional development and social engagement events once a month, from bringing in a speaker to organizing a trip to the theater. Members can also tour local businesses, and the leadership committee recently started “YP Wednesdays,” occasional get-togethers at different eateries within the area. These dinners are casual and open to non-members as well. All in all, members can attend about 40-50 events every year.

While Greater Mankato Growth funds the Young Professionals group and helps implement some of the members’ ideas, the Young Professionals are responsible for choosing and planning their events.

“The direction of what the Young Professionals experience comes from themselves,” Zierdt said. “There is no board that’s going to tell them what should be in the social agenda or the professional development agenda. The members decide what inspires them and allows them to get engaged in the community.”

While other Young Professionals groups across southern Minnesota are open to any young professional, the Mankato group requires that members be employed by a business that is a GMG member at a certain level of membership. Zierdt explained that the reason for this was because of the substantial resources GMG commits to the group and the fact that GMG is a membership-based organization that offers exclusive benefits to its members.

“Are we keeping people from being a part of the Young Professionals? No, we’re just saying you need to be a member of our organization,” he said.

For Hanel, joining the group through his employer was definitely worth it.

“I’ve met a lot of great people, and it’s been such a great experience for me,” he said. “I probably would not have expanded my network as much as what I did without being in the YPs for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the program.”

To learn more about Mankato’s Young Professionals group, visit its website at, its Facebook page “Greater Mankato Young Professionals” or contact Shannon Gullickson at (507) 385-6656.

Grace Webb

Grace Webb

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *