Editorial: Got the people, but not the skills

  • Updated: October 25, 2011 - 7:33 PM

To reboot its economy, the state needs highly educated workers.


Cecil Porter, a machine tool major at MCTC, used a vertical mill machine to make a dovetail cut out of a piece of steel during machine tool tech Tuesday.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A host of remedies were suggested at Tuesday's Governor's Jobs Summit for the lag in job growth that uncharacteristically afflicted Minnesota in the past decade. Minnesota should reduce business taxes, improve government efficiency, invest in energy conservation, find ways to stimulate venture capital investments in small businesses, do a better job of "branding" the state's entrepreneurial advantages and a lot more, speakers said.

But the day's de facto theme was set when moderator Kathy Tunheim asked the four plenary-session panelists what they consider the biggest risk facing Minnesota. "It's that our workforce won't be as vital as it has been," former Medtronic Chairman Bill George said, without hesitation. The other panelists quickly agreed.

Soon afterward, the 800 summit attendees sorted themselves into eight breakout sessions. The one that discussed better aligning Minnesota's secondary and postsecondary education systems with the jobs of the future attracted the only standing-room-only crowd.

The business and civic leaders who responded to Gov. Mark Dayton's summit call showed that they get it: A highly educated, appropriately skilled workforce is key to reinvigorating job creation.

More than most states, Minnesota has an education-dependent economy. By 2018, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 70 percent of our jobs will require postsecondary training. By comparison, 40 percent of Minnesotans of working age today have a postsecondary credential.

Those statistics explain an increasingly apparent "skills gap" in Minnesota. Despite the state's 6.9 percent unemployment rate, high-skills jobs are going begging. Traci Tapani of Wyoming Machine Inc. in Wyoming, Minn., said that her company recently had no applications for a good-paying laser operator position. Nathan Johnson of Pioneer Care in Fergus Falls said that 30 percent of the skilled nursing shifts in his firm need filling. Randy Hatcher of Ultra Machine Co. in Monticello said that an inability to hire precision machinists is constraining his firm's growth.

A skills gap is not only prolonging joblessness: It's eroding Minnesota's reputation as the place where employers find the people who can fill their jobs. Closing the skills gap should be central to a new, bipartisan Minnesota prosperity strategy.

Summit participants described a number of tactics that would help: Better career counseling in high school; more support and remedial education services for at-risk students at two-year colleges; more employer involvement in crafting higher-education curricula.

Those efforts need not be expensive. But education spending cuts won't make them happen, either. Keynote speaker Michael Mandelbaum, coauthor with Thomas Friedman of the new book "That Used to Be Us," pointed out that government spending cuts are harming American's capacity to meet demand for more skilled workers -- not to mention the need for more creative entrepreneurs.

Minnesota isn't in a position to close the skills gap with a major surge in public spending. But it can do more to make the most of its existing resources. Dayton already has directed his commissioners of economic development to work closely with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to better quantify employers' skill needs. That's an important first step; yesterday's call to action on job creation was another.


    "Nearly 2 million working-age Minnesotans lack a credential beyond a high school diploma."

    From Skills@Work, a public education campaign sponsored by the Governor's Workforce Development Council and the Greater Twin Cities United Way. More information at www.skillsatwork.org.

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