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Workforce equity requires top priority

Date Published: 04/16/2015

Author: Dane Smith

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

A recent four-page policy brief by the esteemed Itasca Project, composed of some of the best and brightest leaders of our state’s largest businesses, begins with this clear statement:

“Our regional competitiveness depends on broadening opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”

Got that? Not “could be improved by,” not “might be better with,” but “depends.” By 2040, about 40 percent of our Twin Cities metropolitan area workforce will be people of color, the report notes, and our state and region will not stay strong economically with the current racial disparities that exist in employment and education attainment.

The Twin Cities, despite robust job growth overall in recent years, ranks just above Detroit and St. Louis, or 23rd among 25 major metropolitan areas, in the employment rate gap between white workers and workers of color. The Itasca Project’s report is directed at private-sector managers and employers and it implores them to accelerate diversification efforts, by making personal commitments, setting goals and making and implementing plans for a more inclusive workforce.

Meanwhile, back at the state Capitol, workforce equity and alignment as a state policy priority could use an energy boost. The issue captured a lot of attention and bipartisan resolve as the session began, but since then conflicts over transportation funding  and the perennial ideological tension over tax-and-budget philosophy have tended to overshadow our workforce equity imperative.

“We started out with a bang, and it’s right that we refocus now on workforce in the final month,” says state Sen. Terri Bonoff, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. Gov. Mark Dayton may have helped in his State of the State speech. After his long recitation of all the plaudits and high rankings Minnesota has been racking up lately on measures of economic and social health, the very first “shortcoming” flagged by Dayton was “an unacceptable gap in academic achievement among students of color.”

The problem is better described as an opportunity gap, but quibbling over semantics is less important than taking action. Lawmakers have before them an unusually large menu of proposals to not only improve racial equity in the workforce, but also to make workforce training align with jobs that are in demand. Here are the key policy reforms and investments that need to be approved before the Legislature goes home this year:

Career Pathways: Making higher education and training available on a come-and-get-it basis is no longer enough. Young people need more help and support in this increasingly complex environment. A career pathways grant program, which will fund and expand a variety of innovative efforts to obtain faster training and credentials for jobs in high demand, must be approved. The “pathways” approach is a comprehensive and effective strategy that simultaneously provides skills instruction, job training and support services.

Remediation reform: Students who are compelled to spend money and time on postsecondary remedial courses, for no credit, seldom graduate. Creative proposals to break through that obstacle are advancing, led by the group Students for Education Reform.

Apprenticeships: Efforts like the very promising Minnesota PIPELINE Project, modeled on the widely admired German model of simultaneous employment and training, need to be funded and expanded. The apprenticeship legislation now goes by the label “Earn While You Learn” and may be headed for implementation by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Evaluation and performance funding: MSPWin, a collaboration of foundations seeking workforce equity and efficiency, is urging a variety of improvements in outcome reporting and evaluation of all the various higher-ed and workforce training programs, with an eye on steering more funding to those that are most effective. State compliance with recent reforms in the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a remarkable bipartisan accord reached by Congress last year, ought to be reinforced.

Early credits: Research consistently shows that students who get postsecondary credits in high school are much more likely to succeed and attain a credential or a degree. Proposals to increase the variety of dual-credit courses offered in high school and to expand opportunities for all ninth- and 10th-graders, not just gifted students in the higher grades, must advance.

Statewide goals: Many other states in recent years have set a specific goal for overall higher education attainment — Growth & Justice has long advocated for a 75 percent postsecondary completion goal — as well as long-term goals for ending racial disparities, and interim goals for reducing them. Sen. Bonoff wants Minnesota to join those states, with an aspirational goal that will “memorialize our intentions.”

Cost reduction: The price tag and debt burden for credentials remains a prohibitive barrier for too many young people of color and those from low-income families. A praiseworthy proposal to make community college free in Minnesota has been retooled, and the author, state Sen. Leroy Stumpf, recently unveiled a more modest proposal that would help an estimated 3,500 students save $3,500 apiece. On a larger scale, Gov. Dayton’s proposals to freeze tuition at public colleges and to increase needs-based student aid, which helps private and public colleges, also need to be approved. Basic state funding for public higher-ed systems, from the University of Minnesota to vocational and technical colleges, has lagged over the last two decades and must be restored.

Full employment, at livable wages: Recent national research highlights how workforce equity and dramatic gains for communities of color really begins to happen when full employment is reached, as was almost the case in the 1990s, and when wages rise. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans are still unemployed, or underemployed. Thousands more jobs, most of them in the private sector, would be created with a larger transportation funding bill, and a larger bonding bill for state infrastructure construction projects. Dayton’s proposed bonding bill would create an estimated 23,000 jobs.

Striving for workforce equity and eliminating racial disparities is righteous work, a form of civil rights advocacy for which Minnesotans can be proud. We have a legacy of more than 150 years of leadership on this cause, from all our major political parties, going back to early statehood and the Civil War.

But workforce equity also makes perfect business sense. The Itasca Project report cites four specific competitive advantages of a more diverse workforce: stronger connections to a more diverse customer base; less “groupthink” and better decisions; increased innovation; and better financial results on the company bottom line. And this subhead in the Itasca Project policy brief sums it up pretty well, as an opportunity rather than a problem:
“We have yet to tap the full potential of our region’s human capital.”

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, April 16, 2015. 

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