Franz Vancura: “I came to the conclusion that I’d have a better quality of life staying here.”
Generation Next: The Millennials
Franz Vancura always thought he’d practice law in the Twin Cities. That certainly was the plan when a Minneapolis law firm hired him in 2011. But when his new employer encouraged the recent University of St. Thomas School of Law graduate to take a year to clerk for a judge before jumping into life as a corporate attorney, Vancura didn’t pursue any opportunities in the metro area. “I applied to any judge north of Brainerd,” said the New Ulm native.
Vancura’s interest in the region started when he was young. His family owned property on Little Webb Lake in Hackensack and he had happy memories of fishing and relaxing with friends and relatives on the lake. “I had a real connection with the geography and nature of the area,” he said. When he was hired by Judge John P. Smith in Walker, Vancura packed up his Minneapolis condo and moved to a cabin in the woods on Horseshoe Lake.
Most people with big-city ambitions would find the off season at a resort community like Walker a little sleepy. But Vancura thrived, especially after he bought an English Springer Spaniel and spent his weekends walking through the woods hunting grouse and pheasants. “It became harder and harder to justify leaving a place I loved and a community I’d gotten involved in to go back to the Twin Cities,” he said. “I just came to the conclusion that I’d be happier and have a better quality of life staying up here.”
At 31, Vancura is at the old end of the generation dubbed the Millennials. Born between 1981 and 2000, the group gets its name from the fact that it’s the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.
According to Minnesota Compass, there are 1.5 millennials living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes—200,000 in Central Minnesota. That’s compared to 1.3 million Baby Boomers—the demographic bulge of people born between 1946 and 1964. As the Boomers retire, these young people are crucial to our region’s future.
That’s what Vancura found when he did some research and discovered that there was only one other attorney under the age of 55 with a solo practice in Cass County. So he literally hung out his shingle and founded the Vancura Law Firm, now located in Walker. He immersed himself in the community, joining the Walker Rotary Club and St. Agnes Parish, and learned how to curl. He also took on as much pro bono work as he could handle and raised money for Hackensack’s PAWS and CLAWS Animal Shelter, an Initiative Foundation Turn Key component fund.
Locals took note. “Franz was one of the first people to get back to us and say he’d help in any way,” said Betty Thomas, the founder of beekeeping supply company Mann Lake Ltd. and the driving force behind PAWS and CLAWS. “Sometimes you can’t just have older folks who are established. You need to bring in the people with new ideas and listen to them.”
Economic development experts agree. “The Millennials are our future leaders, elected officials, employees, company owners and parents,” said Kathy Gaalswyk, president of the Initiative Foundation. “As the Baby Boomers retire, sell their companies and discontinue their public service, this is the next wave of leaders.”
Attracting these future leaders to Central Minnesota could be a challenge. An analysis done by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that only 14 percent of Millennials live in rural areas nationwide, a marked decline from the 29 percent of Boomers who called small town America home when they were young adults. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that even though Millennials are less inclined to buy a home than older Americans, there’s a housing shortage in Central Minnesota.
The good news is that there’s another story beneath these statistics. Research by Ben Winchester, a fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, actually shows a “brain gain” in rural Minnesota since 1970, comprised primarily of people between the ages of 30 and 49 who, like Vancura, move to rural communities because they are drawn to the quality of life. As Millennials start families, Central Minnesota has an opportunity to capitalize on the region’s natural assets and the fact that our economy is no longer based solely on agriculture.
“This isn’t your grandpa’s rural,” said Winchester. “Anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of people in the rural communities are proprietors. A lot of people are independent contractors.”
Like any generation, Millennials have their own perspective on the world, which is often shaped by current events. Hit hard by the recession, they don’t feel the same kind of loyalty to a single employer that their older co-workers do. According to the Pew Research Center survey, about two-thirds of all employed Millennials say it is likely they will switch careers sometime in their working life, compared with 55 percent of Gen Xers and 31 percent of Baby Boomers.
In fact, many Millennials in rural communities will have to start and run their own businesses. “Millennials will be the most entrepreneurial generation,” said Jack Schultz, the author of Boomtown USA: The 7½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns. “That’s important because most small towns aren’t going to be able to bring in the next company. We have to grow our own.”
Starting a business just made sense to Travis Kelley, the 28-year-old co-founder and owner of JenTra Tools in Backus. After two years of working at a Minneapolis lumber company, the Backus native moved back home to sell doors to lumber yards north of Brainerd. When he noticed that the doors often warped after they were installed, he and his wife, Jen, decided to figure out a solution.
“The doors in our factories were always flat as a board,” Kelley said. “If the door is installed properly, it shouldn’t warp.” Seeing an opportunity for a precision tool that takes the guesswork out of door installation, the Kelleys created a prototype using tin, cardboard and a level from Menards. “We used it to put a door in and thought, holy cow, that will work,” said Kelley.
As a new company with no track record, the Kelleys weren’t able to get traditional funding for a loan to start their business. But research turned up several local opportunities that turned their dream into reality. An ex-lawyer from Andersen Windows wrote their utility patent pro bono. Business financing from the Initiative Foundation and Crow Wing Power got them on their way.
Manufactured in Rogers and assembled in Backus, The CHEATAH door level hit store shelves in 2012 and already has been mentioned on the DIY Network’s “Must Have” list from the International Building Show. They’ve sold 6,000 units and are working toward introducing other tools and breaking into the big box market. Kelley credits much of his success to his hometown. “I have so much support,” he said. “I grew up with these people so I know they always have my back.”
Connectors and collaborators
This can-do spirit is part of a Millennial’s approach to work in general. It’s not unusual today to hear a Boomer marvel, and sometimes even gripe, about how their Millennial colleague feels entitled to a one-on-one meeting with the company’s president. But there’s a positive spin to that generational stereotype. “Millennials like to be in the loop,” said Diane Tran, the founder of Minnesota Rising, a network for emerging leaders in Minnesota. “People can say they constantly want ribbons and awards, but it’s more that they enjoy human connections. Millennials like feedback, collaborating and working in teams.”
That’s not the only way Millennials are changing the way that traditional workplaces operate. “Boomers are into the time clock,” said Chris Fastner, who in his work as the senior program manager for organizational development at the Initiative Foundation oversees the organization’s VISTA volunteers. “Millennials seem to be more focused on getting the work done,” he said.
That’s a generational stereotype that resonates with Katrina Pierson, the 28-year-old partner at HBH Consultants in St. Cloud. “I was 10 when my family got the Internet,” she said. “We are used to being on all the time because technology is part of who we are. People my age don’t want to be tied to a 9 to 5 structure.”
That natural ease with technology makes Millennials extremely valuable to their workplaces. As the first generation to view texting, tweeting, and “liking” posts on Facebook and Instagram as everyday parts of life, they understand how to capitalize on social media in a way that might elude their older colleagues.
“Technology has given us a new set of tools that can lead to opportunities for innovation and connecting people,” said Tran. “The younger part of the workforce can help make meaning of these technologies.”
That doesn’t mean the Millennials entrance into the workforce has not come without bumps. At Mann Lake, Thomas says that her younger employees have learned that when they are at work, they need to keep their piercings and tattoos hidden. (Four in 10 Millennials have at least one tattoo, according to Pew Research.) “What they do after hours is up to them,” she said. “But when they are the face of Mann Lake, it has to be our corporate image.”
As an employee stock ownership company, Thomas knows that the future of Mann Lake relies on this generation. “In small rural America kids graduate from high school, flee and don’t come back until they are ready to retire,” she said. “We need a reason that they can come back, live, raise their families, enjoy the quality of life we have and offer them a good standard of living.”