Minnesota can weather the skilled-worker shortage that’s clouding state economic forecasts in two ways: It can beef up the competencies and productivity of potential workers already here, or it can attract more workers from other places.

This state can and probably should employ both strategies, Steven Rosenstone allows. But when policymakers must choose between the two, they should opt for investing in the people who already call Minnesota home. It’s the more fruitful approach, he assures.

That may be what one would expect the CEO of the state’s largest provider of higher education to say. But as of April 8, Rosenstone is a lame duck, free to speak his mind — not that he has ever been known for reticence in his five years as chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Rosenstone, 64, announced that he’ll retire as chancellor in mid-2017. Often, a leader who becomes a lame duck is soon ignored, and not always for benign reasons. Witness the experience of the nation’s term-limited president trying to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

It will be a shame if Rosenstone is similarly disregarded in the next year as the MnSCU board of trustees searches for his successor. His assertive leadership style may not have charmed every constituency in the sprawling, fractious MnSCU collective, as criticism of his approach to strategic planning and a string of faculty no-­confidence votes in 2014 attest.

But after 20 years in Minnesota, 15 of them in leadership at the University of Minnesota, Rosenstone is among the state’s keenest analysts of this state’s biggest looming challenge: Its pool of well-educated workers is not growing fast enough to meet employer demand and keep Minnesota prospering. He bears heed when he calls for redoubled efforts to get the most out of every potential worker — and that means getting the most out of public education, including and maybe especially MnSCU.

“The Achilles’ heel of this state’s economy is its talent pipeline. It isn’t flowing fast enough,” Rosenstone said after he announced his retirement plans. “The thing that’s slowing the flow is our tragic racial disparities. Seventy percent of all the population growth statewide is among people of color. The fastest-growing populations in our communities are those who today are least-prepared for the jobs that need to be filled.

“We collectively need to have all heads together on the disparities issue. There is no state in the nation that needs a more talented workforce than Minnesota does. We either solve this problem, or we are in deep trouble. … We’ve got to have more and more students prepared for postsecondary and more and more staying in Minnesota for postsecondary study.

“We in education all need to be higher-performing — all of us.”

Rosenstone believes improving educational performance will require punching holes in more of the institutional walls that have been erected and fortified through 158 years of statehood, at both the high school and higher-ed levels.

He’s not talking about institutional mergers, which have come to be seen as more political trouble than they are worth. Rather, Rosenstone’s favorite word of late is the same one he highlighted in his 2011 inaugural message — “collaboration.”

Collaboration is what Rosenstone says he has encouraged among MnSCU’s 31 institutions. There’s evidence that more of it is happening, too, though that may be in spite of the chancellor as well as because of him. Shared faculty unhappiness about his approach to strategic planning may have done more to push two-year college and four-year university faculty into joint efforts than the chancellor’s exhortations to collaborate could have alone.

One example: Faculty members are the lead in knocking down old barriers to transfers of academic credits from when students transfer from two-year to four-year MnSCU schools. Rosenstone says that shows what can happen when previously autonomous institutions decide they are part of one system whose mission is to serve the whole state.

There needs to be a lot more of that kind of collaboration — and not just within MnSCU — if Minnesota is going to produce more educated workers in the next few years, Rosenstone says. That’s the best way to make the most of ever-scarce educational resources.

He’s enthusiastic about helping more students earn college credits while in high school. He’s keen on working with employers to inform younger students about career options and providing more on-the-job college learning. He’s proud of MnSCU colleges that have revamped and approved academic support for students who arrive in college without all the high school preparation college-level classes require.

“So much of what we have to accomplish does not involve working within MnSCU,” he said. “It’s working with K-12, it’s working with the Chamber [of Commerce], its working with DEED [the state Department of Employment and Economic Development], it’s working with Itasca” [Itasca Project, a business-oriented civic leadership group]. All of those entities are keenly aware of Minnesota’s workforce challenges, Rosenstone says. Minnesota needs them very intentionally pulling together now.

More’s the point: Minnesota needs higher-education leaders who are willing to pull in concert with those external forces, even if doing so causes anxiety within the academy. Consider that a plea to the MnSCU board of trustees’ chancellor search committee.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.