The Star Tribune’s “Better Together” series makes an important point about the need for “one Minnesota.” However, it’s important that “Greater Minnesota” isn’t put into a single basket. Needs are different in Chisholm than they are in Worthington, and they are different in Ely than they are in Austin. We have different economies, assets and challenges.
As a young professional and a legislator, I look around my House district and see many success stories, but also the devastation that international market forces are inflicting on families at the heart of our economy. That devastation puts at risk lots of innovation that has helped us create new hope for our rural industrial economy.
What the rest of the state should be aware of is this: The Iron Range has been changing, often in ways even our own residents need time to acknowledge and adjust to. Mining is a part of our heritage and will be a part of our future. But the Range has been working hard to make sure that is only a part of the story.
Schools on the Range, both high schools and colleges, have changed the way they educate technical workers. Companies here have been paying attention to dramatic demographic change underway not just on the Range, but across the state and nation. We’ve been investing heavily in the next economy by building partnerships for broadband, new technical training and bio industries to revive the state’s timber industry.
It’s worth understanding these advances as we try to respond to the current situation.
Look at the demographics of the mining industry. Just 10 years ago, the biggest fear was that most of the miners were about to retire, taking their expertise with them. Since then, an effort by the Northeast Higher Education District to train the next generation of miners, and extensive efforts by the companies, has resulted in stunning change: In 2004, just 32 percent of the miners were under the age of 45. At the end of 2014, nearly 50 percent of the miners were younger than 45, and nearly a quarter (22.8 percent) were younger than 35.
While the median age of the Range continues to go up, as in the rest of Greater Minnesota, the hiring boom for younger, skilled workers has begun to turn the tables, giving hope to communities. And that boom goes beyond mining. Companies like Delta Air Lines, Blue Cross Blue Shield and DeCare Dental have been hiring young professionals to fill jobs. And the demographics of some communities, the ones that are attractive to young professionals, are turning around. The area around Chisholm and the city of Gilbert have been gaining young adults. Gilbert and Chisholm have just as many 20- to 34-year-olds as the state average, and the percentage has been increasing.
We need to take the lessons from those successful communities and apply them all over.
The Range is way ahead of the nation and Minnesota in technical education. According to the latest census data, 12.1 percent of Iron Rangers have an associate degree, compared with 10.3 percent of Minnesotans and just 7.8 percent of the U.S. population. Those degrees make our workforce exceptional, especially since the degrees granted here are based on industry needs:
• We changed technical education to focus on transferable core skills. We’ve asked industries not just what they need today but what skills will make employees valuable as technology and processes change. Then we’ve helped our high schools and technical college programs retool to focus on these core skills, which are valuable not just in mining but also in manufacturing, power generation, construction and any industry that needs trained technical workers.
• We’ve reinvented how technical skills are taught in high schools. The region’s Applied Learning Institute created a partnership between our school districts and the Northeast Higher Education District, so that many shop classes at the high schools count for college credit, teachers have connections to real industry needs and students have access to the latest equipment. Not only does this produce high school graduates with solid skills, but it has increased graduation rates for students who otherwise might have dropped out. Now they are not only graduating, but graduating with real-world skills and college credits.
• Our educational institutions are in constant touch with industry, and we’ve created a variety of teaching programs that are nontraditional because they help students get jobs and help employers. While others are talking about these kind of stackable credentials, we’re delivering them, from CNA nursing programs to commercial truck driving.
• Our colleges have created links with public and private universities around the state so that students can receive a bachelor’s degree in 11 fields ranging from accounting to criminal justice as well as master’s degrees in education, engineering, and health and safety. Iron Range Engineering is a unique, project-based program that allows students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. The graduates are heavily sought after — not only on the Range, but around the region, because the work is based on real-world engineering challenges.
We’re also helping our communities invest for the future. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board has joined the state Department of Employment and Economic Development in supporting a variety of broadband projects (the rural electrification of the 21st century) in order to put this region ahead in the race to the next set of industries. Many Range businesses have used that connectivity to build up their client lists to crisscross the country in fields ranging from marketing to industrial machinery. Our investments in providing the backbone for new bio-based manufacturing are attracting attention from other firms coast to coast.
Mining and economic diversification don’t need to represent an either/or proposition. They can, and should, work together. Fact is, it is very difficult to replace well-paying mining jobs on the Range. One common theme across rural Minnesota, and perhaps across rural America, is the need for jobs that can support middle-class families. Adding more low-paying jobs that do not provide enough income for a family to buy a home or send kids to college doesn’t strengthen our economy or our state.
So what the Range is asking for now is just some more time to help with this moment caused by international forces. We believe there will always be mining on the Range, but we also realize that there will be ups and downs. That’s why we’ve invested in the kinds of workforce and community development projects that are a model for the rest of the state.
Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is a member of the Minnesota House.