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Workforce development must be more conscious of race gap

Date Published: 07/12/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


A well-publicized report from the Economic Policy Institute last week revealed the Twin Cities once again with the largest disparity in the nation between whites and blacks in unemployment rates.

A few redeeming background facts got lost in the media coverage. The Twin Cities does not have the worst black unemployment rate. Five metro regions rank higher: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Miami.

Dig a little deeper into Bureau of Labor Statistics data and one will discover that the Minneapolis-St. Paul region actually has the second lowest overall unemployment, at 5.2 percent, among metro areas with a million or more residents. Moreover, while black unemployment actually got worse in 2011 in some of those other metro regions, the black jobless rate improved in the Twin Cities from 21 percent to 17.7 percent between 2010 and 2011.

But let’s get real. While all but a few wealthy Minnesotans are still suffering the effects of the Great Recession and Wall Street collapse in 2008, an 18 percent unemployment rate is a full-scale Depression, complete with 1930s-style pain and suffering, for African-American communities.

And the fact that African-Americans are three times more likely than whites to be unemployed is actually the direct result of another distinction: Minnesota continues to rank near the top in many measures of racial disparity in education, namely test scores and attainment of postsecondary credentials. This also holds true for Latinos, American Indians and Asians.

These gaps represent vast unrealized human potential and brainpower, or to paraphrase the famous ad for a national college fund for black students, a terrible waste of minds. And if we fail to narrow those gaps — not only for Minnesotans of color, but for low-income whites as well — the long-term result will be major damage to the economy and quality of life for everyone in our state.

One compelling demographic explains this peril. At one end of our lifespan in Minnesota, those 85 years and older, 3 percent are people of color. At the other end, those under the age of 5, 30 percent are kids of color. This brand-new generation, in other words, is 10 times more racially diverse than the one born in the 1920s. You don’t need a Ph.D. in social work or economics to figure out that race equity in education may be the most compelling public policy priority for Minnesota over the next decade.

And compounding this challenge, Minnesota’s economy has long relied on higher-level skills than in other states. Advances in technology and medicine mean these employers need more skills — both academic ability and softer communication proficiency — all the time. National studies indicate that two-thirds of employers report having trouble finding the skills they seek in the workforce. Often these employers aren’t seeking college graduates with four-year or advanced degrees, but those possessing one- or two-year credentials or certificates.

The good news is that business and community leaders, and not just schools and parents, are getting after it. Across Minnesota, the private, public and nonprofit sectors are coming together, setting goals for achievement and credential completion (and, importantly, gap closing) in their local areas. Businesses and foundations are helping schools and human service providers develop sophisticated roadmaps for achieving goals along the way, such as kindergarten readiness, reading comprehension by grade 3, and other kindred goals. Sometimes called the “Strive” model, and backed by the African American Leadership Forum in Minnesota, these efforts represent the best hope for closing these stubborn and dangerous gaps.

A recent Growth & Justice report, “Whole Towns Coming Together for All Students,” describes many of these initiatives in greater Minnesota. And a Star Tribune article in May described the Strive strategy this way: “Identify specific goals, come up with a common way to measure those goals, and do so by using a rigorous set of data that can be shared with everyone. Each community sets its own priorities for improving education for students ‘from cradle to career.’”

Those efforts address what is sometimes called “the pipeline,” those younger folks who are still going to school and not yet in the workforce full time. But the state also needs to redouble its efforts to train or retrain Minnesotans of color who are already working or seeking work.

“All Hands on Deck,” a credible blueprint for exactly what to do, has recently been updated and reissued by the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, which consists of business leaders and some of the state’s most knowledgeable workforce development professionals.

Among two key recommendations in “All Hands on Deck” are these: expansion of the Minnesota FastTRAC initiative, already in place at some community and technical colleges and specifically designed to help low-wage workers upgrade skills and obtain credentials; and identifying “off-track” middle and high school students through an emerging Minnesota Early Indicator Response System, then using supports and interventions to get them back on track to post-secondary readiness.

Meanwhile, state and local government policymakers and the private sector need to examine and evaluate which of many existing efforts at workforce development are producing the best results for low-income and minority populations. We know that despite the discouraging disparities, promising job training and placement efforts are happening.

The nonprofit Project for Pride in Living programs are showing results with classes aimed at upgrading computer skills and so-called soft skills that are vital to finding and keeping a job. And Summit Academy OIC, a nonprofit educational and vocational training center, has won wide praise for its successful training programs in construction trades.

And although it’s hardly a new concept or slogan and has been said many times in many ways, Summit’s charismatic CEO and president, Louis King, says it over and over everywhere he goes, without apology: “The best social service program in the world is a job.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 12, 2012.

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