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Dream of ‘world’s best workforce’ gathers momentum

Date Published: 03/07/2013

Author: Dane Smith


A joint hearing of the House Education Policy and Education Finance committees recently generated more than two hours of passionate testimony around an unusually broad and aspirational topic: “The World’s Best Workforce.”
In contrast to the sharply divided pro-and-con on Gov. Mark Dayton’s tax overhaul a few days later, on this subject there was overwhelming consensus that the goal was realistic and that we actually know where to apply ourselves.

Here’s the gist: Put everything we can behind the workforce equity task, helping disadvantaged young people and kids of color, from infancy to young adulthood, get caught up and trained for jobs of the future. Those kids are the fastest growing part of our new workforce (many already are in the workforce, or looking), and we absolutely must do better by them if we want to remain a prosperous state.

An inspiring degree of unity around this theme is breaking out among business leadership in Minnesota, leaders of the public and nonprofit sector, and what might loosely be called the forces for racial and economic equity. These players don’t always agree on things (such as who should pay how much in taxes.)

These leaders produced some of the most inspiring moments at the hearing:

Kathleen Annette, M.D., president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation, who introduced herself as a child of poverty and the first Ojibwe woman in Minnesota to become a medical doctor, told the panel that education made all the difference in her success, as well as “a whole lot of people who believed I could do it, every step of the way.”

Making the case for comprehensive community collaboration, from early education to early career, Annette recommended the “holistic” and “cradle-to-career” education initiatives under way in Itasca County, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. These “everybody in” efforts are devoted to broad community partnerships, setting goals and creating a common vision, and using hard metrics and road maps that measure success along the entire pathway for each child. Annette noted that the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success recently drew 600 educators and community leaders to an organizing meeting in Grand Rapids — an astounding turnout for a rural area and a great show of commitment.

Annette summarized the priorities as investing in children early (Itasca County also is home to a national model for early childhood education) and staying attentive to kids with personal attention and investment all the way through to their early career. She also called for recognizing and scaling up innovation and recognizing that no organization can do it alone. She chided, “What are we waiting for?”

Sanjay Kuba, a senior vice president of GSS Infotech and a member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, delivered a thoroughly business-like PowerPoint presentation that started with the need for education that emphasizes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). His presentation was laced with the message that higher education and business need to work more effectively to prepare more young and incumbent workers for the jobs that actually are being created.

But Kuba repeatedly stressed that the world’s best workforce must embrace Minnesota’s growing racial diversity. He cited this finding from a recent report by the Alliance for Excellent Education titled “Inseparable Imperatives: Equity in Education and the Future of the American Economy”: “Any successful economic strategy must eliminate the gaps in education attainment and achievement and enable the fastest growing populations to reach their full potential as wage earners, consumers and citizens.” Kuba added, “We can’t be the world’s best unless we tackle this.”

Ambitious and specific postsecondary completion rates need to be set for Minnesota, Kuba said, noting the oft-cited Georgetown University study that projects that by 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require postsecondary education. Kuba estimated that soon 85 percent of new jobs in Minnesota will require some level of postsecondary education. Other presenters noted that progress is being made in high school graduation rates and in standardized test scores, but it is clear that Minnesota won’t make the necessary postsecondary goals at the end of this decade if close to half of our Latino, Native American and African American students continue to fall short of high school graduation.

Brian Lindsley, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Development Council (GWDC), and Mo Amundson, chairman of the GWDC and owner of consulting firm Education-to-Careers, displayed a chart showing that nearly a quarter of national employers report skills shortages, including two-thirds of bioscience companies and half the firms in the energy business.

They also displayed a chart showing that Minnesota could reduce its unemployment rate by about 2 full percentage points, to under 5 percent, if it simply closed the “skills gap” reported by employers. Lindsley and Amundson displayed a finding that improvements in educational attainment boost regional productivity and can account for as much as one-fourth of all economic growth. And they and many others called attention to one of our most depressing realities: one of the largest racial achievement gaps in the nation.

The GWDC team presented five recommendations: a specific career and postsecondary plan for every high school student, expansion and more funding for dual-credit programs in high school, more effort to identify and help “off-track” students, better alignment of classrooms and teacher training to the world of work, and creating a 21st Century School designation for schools that make comprehensive and innovative efforts to move their students quickly to postsecondary completion. Irondale High School in the Mounds View school district increasingly is cited as just such a model.

Some of the best news in the hearing revolved around the fact that Minnesota is still within striking distance of these goals. Our economy is already “smarter” — with comparatively more jobs requiring more education — than most states. And on most measures of postsecondary completion and college readiness, Minnesota usually is among the top 10 or even top five states. And if we were a nation, we’d also rank near the top in international attainment.

Workforce excellence has long been Minnesota’s greatest comparative economic advantage, and it more than offsets our rugged climate and distance from markets. The clear verdict from the hearing was that we need to double down on that asset and invest in our diversity rather than continue worrying about it.

It’s fitting that this unusual hearing was organized by Rep. Paul Marquart, who represents a largely white rural district in northwestern Minnesota, and Rep. Carlos Mariani, who represents one of the state’s most diverse urban districts, covering many St. Paul neighborhoods.

“This discussion can’t just end now,” Marquart told MinnPost reporter Doug Grow after the hearing. “It has to be at the center of every committee meeting. It has to be going on in our communities across the state.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, March 7, 2013.

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