It’s widely agreed that the greatest challenge for Minneapolis-St. Paul is to build a community in which people of color are as likely as whites to attain middle-class lives.

Demographics suggest that a key opportunity to make progress on that goal is now at hand. Baby boomers are retiring and jobs are opening up. The task is to match those jobs to a new generation of workers qualified to fill them.

But therein lies the problem. Minority students, although growing rapidly in numbers, are still far behind whites in educational success. Without a dramatic turnaround, the infamous achievement gap will persist, and the metro area’s top competitive asset — its skilled workforce — will erode.

Hennepin County Administrator David Hough has decided to intervene with a job-match initiative that, while still in its infancy, hopes to draw partners from community colleges, private companies and other governments. “There has been a lot of hand-wringing,” Hough said, “but this is about making something happen.”

The county expects a surge in job openings over the next five years as 2,200 of its 7,400 employees reach retirement age. Many who now hold those jobs have four-year college degrees. But, Hough says, if replacements can be customized to fit some of those jobs and specifically trained for them, a two-year degree, followed by a brief internship, could suffice.

What he intends is an unprecedented outreach effort to attract and train historically disadvantaged workers for a wide range of specific job openings at libraries or in public safety, corrections, human services, information technology, public works, health care, and so on. The county’s nonprofit partners would smooth out difficulties with day care, life counseling, people skills, tuition payments and other potential roadblocks.

The aim is for a 24-year-old mother, who’s in danger of drifting through life in menial jobs, to sit down at a computer and see clearly a pathway to middle-class life. She might set her mind on a certain job opening at the medical examiner’s office, for example. The screen would show how much she could earn, the steps she would have to take to qualify and the help she could get along the way.

Similarly, a 16-year-old boy could see at a glance a pathway toward a well-paying job in the sheriff’s office if only he could find the courage to overcome destructive peer pressure, finish high school and get a two-year degree.

Multiply those stories thousands of times, and you get the upward trajectory required to close the achievement gap. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin described the job-match initiative as “the next big thing for us,” adding that it rides the wave of a booming local economy and a tide of transportation improvements.

“In the old days, it was patronage and machine politics that moved people into the middle class,” he said, recalling that impoverished European immigrants got city jobs as cops, clerks and sanitation workers based on personal connections and political favors. The jobs-match initiative is a new and improved way to accomplish the same thing, he said.

It’s possible that governments have relied too heavily in recent decades on the social-service model for improving peoples’ lives, McLaughlin said, adding: “Maybe we’ve forgotten that a job is the best social service.”

Mike Christenson, associate vice president for workforce development at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, called the county’s initiative “the single most powerful approach I’ve seen.” MCTC has emerged as the county’s primary partner in the effort. Christenson, Minneapolis’ former economic development director, urged private companies to join the project as a way of filling their own mid-level vacancies.

Indeed, the county’s job match is an exciting initiative that deserves the attention of school systems, community colleges and a broad range of perspective employers. Complaining about achievement and income gaps does nothing to help impoverished families. Building a pipeline to employment is a better idea.