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Inseparable Imperatives

Setting the stage: A problem and an opportunity

Traveling around Minneapolis and St. Paul, you can see signs of growth – the light rail connecting the two downtowns, new stadiums, the new 3M research center project--suggesting that the Twin Cities are emerging from the recession.  As our economy revitalizes, it is imperative that all of our communities grow and prosper.

Despite the growth, one only needs to look at unemployment rates to see that our economy has been working for some more than others. Among 19 large metropolitan regions with sizeable black populations, the Twin Cities has the largest gap in unemployment between white and black workers. In 2011, nearly 18% of African Americans in the Twin Cities were unemployed – more than three times the share of whites out of work.

Racial and income-level achievement gaps in education contribute to a dire situation in Minnesota, where people of color are overrepresented among those who lack the credentials and job skills employers increasingly require. Just 40% of working-age adults in the state currently have a postsecondary degree, but in the coming decade, 70% of Minnesota jobs will require education beyond high-school.

Promising practices in workforce training and economic development

Fortunately, there are a number of promising practices in the delivery of workforce training that could prove effective at providing many more workers with the skills demanded by our changing economy. Local community colleges, adult basic education programs, industry leaders, workforce centers, and nonprofit employment services providers are actively engaged in delivering industry-driven, sector-specific, streamlined career pathways training to low-income adult learners. These innovations need to become standard practice so that we have a high-functioning workforce with good job opportunities. This means scaling up the basic skills and occupational training happening through cross-stem partnerships like Minnesota FastTRAC, and expanding initiatives like the statewide Skills@Work Campaign that seek to align information and resources across public and private systems and advance policies that close the skills gap.

Policymakers and economic development planners need to make human capital and workforce preparation a core part of their growth strategy. Hennepin County, for example, has a purposeful strategy for hosting its Workforce Investment Board (WIB) under its economic development arm, and writes workforce strategy into its federally-required Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) which is then approved by the WIB. This has created cross-system awareness—a necessary foundation upon which to build a more purposeful labor market exchange between workers needing jobs and employers needing workers. There is also promise in recent interest by policymakers in significantly boosting the Minnesota Investment Fund, which assists relocating and expanding businesses that promise to create new, living wage jobs.

Looking ahead

Minnesotans have taken notice of, and are responding to, the range of factors contributing to racial inequities in employment. There is promise for progress in initiatives like the Phillips Sectoral Employment Initiative, the Blue Ribbon Commission to Reduce Racial Disparities, the Itasca Project Socioeconomic Disparities Task Force, the Everybody In Task Force, and others designed to create employment pathways for groups underrepresented in our labor market. We now need to match the promise of an employment equity agenda with superior workforce training and the opportunities that economic development brings. This will require coordinated strategy, joint planning and action from key public and private stake holders.

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