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And then, just as many of our hardworking newcomers were beginning to get a toehold, the economic collapse of 2008, with its attendant mortgage scandal, wiped out thousands of jobs and foreclosed on hard-won property.
Another possible factor, also hard to quantify, is that Minnesota’s public sector and its nonprofit sector have tended to be a “charity-first” model — more focused on meeting immediate needs and alleviating poverty than on developing workforce skills and pathways to self-sufficiency. Other regions, notably Chicago, Seattle and Boston, are moving ahead with more-aggressive and more-coordinated efforts to address workforce equity and training that matches skills to jobs, and vice versa.
Getting to work
Sophistication about the “why” most certainly will help with the “what to do.” The very best news out all of this is that energy and creativity are being applied broadly across the Twin Cities and in statewide policy leadership.
From the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, to the African-American Leadership Forum, to the Everybody In coalition, to the Wilder Foundation’s recent research and recommendations, to the Itasca Project’s business-led refocus on gaps and disparities, resolve is building for moving the needle on workforce equity.
Here are some strategies that show promise:
• Now hiring: Huge infrastructure and public-private development projects are underway, involving billions of dollars in taxpayer investment and employing tens of thousands in construction and long-term jobs. The projects include stadiums in Minneapolis and St. Paul, our light-rail build-out, and expansion at the Mall of America and Mayo Clinic. Much tougher requirements and more incentives — sticks and carrots — for hiring and training practices that move toward workforce race equity already are in place for the stadium and rail projects. This pressure must be vigorously applied to all such projects.
• Education: The workhorses of Twin Cities workforce training are the campuses of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and St. Paul College, where some 15,000 youths and adults of color are currently enrolled. Those two campuses are placing virtually every graduate in some construction trades, in biotechnology, in welding and machine tool programs, in sleep therapy, in nursing and in architectural technology. These training programs need more students of color, in a state of academic readiness, and we need to provide all the resources and support possible to ensure course completion, not just enrollment.
• Focus on business clusters: Innovative efforts have been underway for several years to improve equity in specific economic sectors and related business “clusters” that are growing the most and creating the best new Twin Cities jobs, and in places where chronic underemployment has been worst. Models such as the “eds & meds” collaboration between vocational education institutions and health care facilities along the new Central Corridor light-rail line show great promise.
• Internships, apprenticeships and nonprofits: Inspiring stories abound about how quickly disadvantaged young people of color can progress if they can just get a glimpse of the work they can do, plus a little experience on the job. And we need to replicate and expand the best workforce training models in the nonprofit sector, including such standouts as the Summit Academy, Twin Cities Rise, Project for Pride in Living, the International Institute and the Jeremiah Program, encouraging employers to give preference to their graduates.
Prospects for real progress in gap-closing are possible now, because Minnesota and the Twin Cities once again are faring better than most states and regions on most measures of economic vitality, ranking sixth in a recent “index of economic momentum” conducted by State Policy Reports, including third place in income growth and seventh in employment growth.
This is a ripe opportunity. We can harness this growth spurt for disparity reduction and capture the enormous potential of our vibrant communities of color.
Only by facing race and embracing and actually employing this diversity, even if it involves short-term sacrifices and inconvenience and discomfort, will we preserve and enhance the prosperity and quality of life for which we are still famous. The most important things to remember are that our newcomers are not importantly different; we are not essentially racists, and a more equitable workforce will be healthier economically for all of us in the long run.
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, an organization advocating for a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota and currently conducting a research project, “Workforce Equity for a Competitive Economy.’’
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.