Gov. Mark Dayton has set a daunting goal for his final years of office: diversify the overwhelmingly white managerial ranks across all Minnesota state agencies — roughly 1,000 positions.

Nearly nine in 10 management jobs are held by white employees right now. Dayton is pledging to change that. He said state government can better serve the state’s increasingly diverse population by having more executives of color to craft state policy.

Dayton said he is committed to ensuring that more diverse faces fill in the “fabric of state government” and that if he is successful, the initiative will endure long after he has left office.

Efforts to recruit top talent of color won’t be easy.

The state will be jockeying for top candidates alongside such private-sector employers as General Mills, Target and other Minnesota firms that also aggressively have begun diversifying their white-collar ranks. Well-qualified job candidates typically earn more in the private sector, which can put government agencies at a disadvantage when recruiting.

State government also is battling perceptions that its workplace culture isn’t inclusive. A report by the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Council showed employees of color reported higher resignation rates and lower promotion rates than their white counterparts. New employees also reported a lack of mentors and not feeling welcome by co-workers.

Dayton’s recent championing of diversity efforts comes amid criticism by some black political and community leaders who said in September his administration had not done enough to address the vast racial disparity in Minnesota’s economy.

The governor has had middling success boosting racial diversity on his own cabinet, top agency commissioners whom he appoints. Of Dayton’s 24 cabinet members, only two are people of color, about 8 percent.

“It is certainly a priority for our office to have diversity among our commissioners,” Dayton said in a statement.

Dayton’s administration is doing better with racial diversity in his own office and with judicial appointments.

In the governor’s office, 20 percent of the staff are people of color and 73 percent are women. Since 2011, the racial diversity of Minnesota’s judges has increased by 70 percent, to 10.2 percent. Dayton appointed the first Hispanic appellate court judge in state history and the first black Supreme Court Justice (former Justice Alan Page was elected, not appointed).

The governor said he has lived during a transformative time as the state shifted from being overwhelmingly white to becoming far more diverse, including many new Asians, Hispanics and East Africans. He said that has brought a great deal of unease around the state, including a recent forum in St. Cloud where a resident accused a Muslim attendee of having terrorist ties.

“If you really can’t stand your next-door neighbor be somebody different from you, go to Wyoming, go to Utah,” Dayton said. “Find a refuge where it’s still homogenous as it was here 30, 40 years ago. Don’t go around thinking these people don’t belong here.”

Dayton said he is committed to ensuring Minnesota’s government mirrors the state’s population, saying his efforts just now are ramping up.

His administration recently launched a new office within the Department of Employment and Economic Development intended to spur minority hiring and contracting.

Focusing on hiring executives with diverse backgrounds will improve retention of minorities, Dayton said. “People aren’t going to stay if they see everybody above them is white and they conclude rightly or wrongly, ‘Well, there’s no future here for me.’ ”

Stan Alleyne, a consultant with a communications firm owned by Kathy Tunheim, a senior jobs adviser to Dayton, said he and Tunheim have had discussions with Dayton’s office on its recruitment efforts. Top candidates of color, Alleyne said, are looking for diverse workplaces where they will feel valued and see a path to advancement.

“If Minnesota can’t do more, it can’t compete with Atlanta, D.C., Chicago, and places like that,” Alleyne said.

Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, 50, said senior leaders must broaden their professional networks and engage different community groups when developing policy.

Lindsey said his race still stands out at the Capitol. “I’m an African-American, and there’s few African-Americans within the Capitol, so sometimes you do find yourself within those positions in which people are asking you to sort of comment or give a position for all people of color,” Lindsey said in an interview.

Recruitment underway

Dayton issued an executive order in January aimed at diversifying the state’s workforce and contracting process. As part of the order, Minnesota also hired an executive recruiter, Anika Ward.

In the seven months since she started, Ward has focused on building relationships with agencies, community organizations and potential job candidates.

To advertise job opportunities, Ward has attended job fairs and professional mixers and scours LinkedIn, a social-media career networking website, for potential candidates. Ward said she has identified more than 100 candidates of color that Minnesota is interested in wooing.

Ward’s pitch to potential prospects is to appeal to their sense of public service. “The state is a good place to launch a career,” she said. “At the state, you clearly are involved with work that contributes very directly to the community that you live in.”

Since January, 25 percent of new management hires — a total of 10 — identified as minorities. A budget office spokeswoman said that about eight positions are now open in managerial ranks.

Spreading inclusion

State employees can expect more widespread training on intercultural sensitivity, identifying unconscious biases and discrimination prevention, said Dayton’s chief of staff, Jaime Tincher.

The state is working to identify other barriers, including how job candidates are screened and selected for interviews. Melissa Lam Young, 29, applied for work with the state in late 2012. She said successful job candidates must be persistent to make sure their applications get noticed.

She said she pressed for an interview after initially being told she didn’t meet the minimum qualifications. She explained she had experience working for the Minnesota Legislature and had a master’s degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She eventually was hired by the Human Services Department, but for a different role.

“Often, the criticism I hear of those job postings is that you have to have insider knowledge, and you have to phrase things a certain way,” said Young, who works in a division that handles home and community-based services. “I can’t say that I’ve mastered that, but now that I am ‘an insider,’ I can see the parallels between my experience and the job postings. It can always be better.”