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Job one (and two and three): Workforce equity for a competitive economy

Date Published: 04/03/2013

Author: Dane Smith

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

Ford Motor Company advertised its cars years ago with a theme that the company was focused on “Job One,” which was something about “quality.” I remember an ambush interview back then of the Ford CEO by guerrilla documentarian Michael Moore, who cheekily asked, “What’s job two?”

Good question, actually, and as Gov. Dayton and policymakers sort through priorities in this brave new economic recovery, a consensus is emerging that we must reconcile three “Job One” imperatives, three “musts,” to keep our competitive edge in Minnesota.

We must have steady growth in good-paying jobs, and it makes sense to encourage growth in the more promising “smart economy” sectors. The Ford plant in St. Paul recently closed, but other sectors are coming on strong, in health care, transit and infrastructure construction, higher-tech and biomedical manufacturing, and financial services.

We must close the race and income gaps that have opened up in Minnesota with respect to employment and educational attainment. Business leaders are helping lead this refrain, noting that we are cruising for an economic bruising if we continue to fail our kids of color, the fastest growing demographic in the state.

We must constantly improve education and workforce readiness to match the jobs being created in the Twin Cities and Minnesota. Our recent analysis of sector need and degrees conferred suggests we have to ramp up the production of credentials and on-the-job training in key sectors, although a report by Minnesota Public Radio this week finds that the so-called “skills gap” is more complex and nuanced than some would have us believe.

A classic Venn diagram is useful in illustrating these three intersecting “musts” for policymakers and decision-makers in the private, public and nonprofit sector. As they proceed to create jobs and training for jobs, business and government leaders must analyze whether their options fall in the intersection of all three areas, and prioritize those options that do.

A compelling phrase for describing the merger of these musts is the “inseparable imperatives,” which was the title of a November 2012 report by the national Alliance for Excellent Education. This key phrase headlines a new Growth & Justice report that will be released this week, the first in a series, and a preview of an initiative that will show how Minnesota might better link economic development efforts to more equitable workforce development.

It’s hard to argue with the declaration in the national group’s report of exactly why the goals and “musts” are both inseparable and imperative. “Historically, the country’s moral failure to provide all children with an adequate and equal education did not incur a noticeable economic cost. This is no longer the case. Today, this moral imperative — to equitably provide all students with a quality education — is now a critical factor in maintaining the United States’ national economic strength.”

It makes little sense to invest a lot of money in more equitable postsecondary education, and simply focus on graduating more kids of color, if students are not prepared for the jobs that are becoming available in Minnesota. Admirable efforts by Gov. Dayton and MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, following listening tours with business leaders and owners, are headed in that direction and seem to be bearing fruit.

The need to provide better-trained workers for some sectors is obvious. Minnesota has a great opportunity to build and expand on its already strong identity as the health care state, given the pre-eminence of the Mayo Clinic, Medtronic, and other super-achievers in the field. A recent Finance & Commerce article analyzed employment data and found that there were 42,000 more health care jobs in Minnesota in February 2013 than there were five years ago, and that this growth in mostly high-paying jobs made up for almost all the construction and manufacturing jobs lost during the recession.

Putting all our eggs in one basket is inadvisable, however. Job growth figures and other data for Minnesota show resurgence in manufacturing and construction, and public infrastructure projects like the Vikings stadium and the continuing build-out of the Twin Cities transit system will provide good jobs for years to come. And demand will remain high for basic business management skills and in the financial services industry.

One theme emerging for the inseparable imperative movement is that businesses must simply do a better job of hiring from communities of color. “Hiring Equity,” a new report by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, describes “historic and systemic barriers to employment for people of color in the trades and on MnDOT projects.”

Concerted pressure on MnDOT and its contractors has produced improvements in the last two years, making greater use of the training provided for construction jobs by stellar institutions such as the Summit Academy on Minneapolis’ North Side.

The “Hiring Equity” report found that MnDOT’s improvements “demonstrate that race-conscious public policy, which explicitly names the ways that people of color will be impacted, is essential to ending employment disparities.” The report concludes that we must have “a confluence of leadership from the public and private sectors to eliminate some of the pervasive barriers that stand in the way of our shared prosperity.” At a February 2013 legislative hearing focused on “The World’s Best Workforce,” business leaders essentially agreed with the report’s closing exhortation that “more people and organizations in positions of power must take a proactive role in closing the employment gap. This has to be everyone’s job.”

Or Jobs One, Two and Three, perhaps.

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A version of this column originally appeared in in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thrusday, April 4, 2013


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