More than a decade ago, this state’s higher-ed lobbyists were predicting that the day would come when Minnesota’s economy would be hobbled by a shortage of two- and four-year college graduates — and grousing about how little interest their forecast was generating among business leaders.

“They’re going to beg for a tax cut every year until they leave the state because they don’t have enough workers,” one memorably muttered.

I would have called that comment prescient a few years ago. I can’t now. This year, belatedly but emphatically, the state’s business leaders are putting their struggle to find skilled workers at the top of the agenda they’re pressing on state politicians.

Judging from what I heard at Wednesday’s gubernatorial forum at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce Talent Symposium, some politicians are struggling to craft a fitting response. It’s evidently not easy to adapt the old chestnuts that suited a shortage of “jobs, jobs, jobs” to a state that now needs “workers, workers, workers.”

Nary a question was asked at the forum about taxes. That alone is a sea change that must be jarring to the party that has made tax restraint its go-to policy remedy for nearly every public ill. Republican candidate Jeff Johnson was left sounding off-point — before a business audience! — when he interjected whenever he could that he considers Minnesotans overtaxed and wants to remedy that problem.

Instead, the questions assembled in advance by symposium organizers probed for assurances that the gubernatorial wannabes are aware of the levers state policymakers can pull to ease the skilled-worker shortage. And that they are willing to pull them.

There’s the housing lever. What can be done to keep Minnesota’s competitive advantage in housing affordability over places like Seattle and San Francisco?

DFLer Tim Walz likely pleased his business audience when he endorsed an idea some of them have lately touted: tax credits for developers of affordable housing. Johnson said that he liked the concept but that “we don’t always do this very well,” so he’d make no promises.

There’s the child care lever. What can be done about a child care shortage that’s keeping some parents out of the workforce?

Johnson had a tried-and-true Republican answer: Ease up on the state’s regulatory burden. I waited for Walz to offer the tried-and-true DFL response — spend more state money. Instead, he said he’d strive for “a balance in regulation” and explore ways to encourage employers to offer on-site child care, both as a lure to working parents and to shore up quality.

There’s the transportation lever. Businesses have long sought more and better roads for the sake of getting goods to factories and markets. The TwinWest question asked instead about how transportation infrastructure can “enable business to retain and attract talent from across the region.”

Just as they might have a decade or two ago, the answers devolved into a disagreement about whether to increase the gas tax, Minnesota’s 93-year-old constitutionally dedicated source of road (not transit) money, now at 28.5 cents per gallon.

“I’ve suggested we have the conversation about the gas tax,” Walz allowed.

Johnson countered: “You haven’t said we should have a conversation about the gas tax. You’ve said you’d raise the gas tax … at the starting point, a 35 percent increase. That’s not a good answer for Minnesota.”

That spat didn’t address what it will take to encourage transit-loving millennials to choose Minneapolis rather than Portland or Denver, or allow transit-dependent city dwellers to take suburban jobs, or help convince commute-weary baby boomers to stay on the job a few years longer. Neither candidate much acknowledged that new automotive technology is already eroding gas-tax revenue and that the next governor will need to look for new ways to pay for both roads and transit.

More went unsaid. For instance, Johnson made brief mention of his proposal to at least temporarily stop the flow of international refugees — too late in the debate for the fulsome exchange Minnesotans ought to hear about the role immigration can play in filling a gap between employers’ need for workers and today’s supply. That gap is forecast to reach an economy-slowing 239,000 workers statewide by 2022, according to RealTime Talent, a two-year-old public/private effort to tackle the state’s workforce shortage.

The higher-ed lobbyists I once knew came to mind as the candidates discussed the future of Minnesota higher education. They would have appreciated the candidates’ mutual desire to promote apprenticeships, trade-certification programs and two-year as well as four-year degrees. They would have concurred when both Johnson and Walz allowed that student debt is an overused source of college financing.

But what they wanted most from a governor is something their successors crave still. They want a governor who made higher education a top priority. They want one who’s willing and able to enlist this state’s business leaders in both reforming and funding a higher-education system that’s better suited to 21st century needs. They want a governor who can use his office forcefully to rally others to that cause.

The encouraging impression I took from the TwinWest symposium is that — at last — Minnesota’s business leaders want that, too.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.