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Iron Range legislators' efforts to create a state-funded $240,000 forgivable loan program to lure young dentists to their region could be chalked up to lawmaking moxie -- or, in the context of a $1 billion state budget deficit, chutzpah.
But behind their move last week is a much bigger emerging story: A shortage of skilled workers lies ahead for Minnesota, not many years beyond the Great Recession of 2008-09.
Rural Minnesotans are already seeing it, noted state demographer Tom Gillaspy at Tuesday's "Minnesota's Future 3x3" forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Already, medical professionals are in short supply in rural areas.
For the rest of the state, an unemployment rate that's been above 7 percent for 15 months likely is obscuring the view of what could be Minnesota's next great economic challenge. The retirement of the baby boomers is expected to combine with a declining number of young adults to bring the growth in the workforce "practically to nil" by 2020, Gillaspy said.
This won't just be Minnesota's problem. It will be a worldwide phenomenon. "The single most important demographic change in the world right now is the dramatic decline everywhere in birthrates" that began about 20 years ago, wrote futurist George Friedman in his 2009 book "The Next 100 Years."
Even in developing nations, the economic reward that once accrued to large families has vanished, Friedman noted. He predicts that by the 2020s, states and nations will be vigorously competing to do two things: increase the number of workers in their midst, and increase the skills and productivity of the workers they have.
Minnesota's leaders are understandably preoccupied with today's need for job growth. But state government's central mission is stewardship of Minnesota's long-term success. State leaders -- especially those who would be governor beginning in 2011 -- should prepare now to meet the labor challenge that's ahead.
Sporadic, piecemeal efforts, such as the dental initiative proposed by the Legislature's Rangers, won't suffice. Minnesota needs a comprehensive strategy aimed at increasing both the number and the productivity of its workforce in 2020 and beyond. Its elements could include ideas like these heard Tuesday:
•Make Minnesota a magnet for young talent, both by keeping higher education strong and affordable and by promoting the state's entrepreneurial advantages. Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative and an authority on entrepreneurship, said that Minnesota is the leader in its 12-state region in new venture capital investments, and in 2008 was rated by the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch the best metro area in the country for business. But Minnesotans aren't good at tooting that horn.
•Encourage older workers to retire later and retirees to engage in civic work, such as mentoring and tutoring young learners. Increasing elder productivity will require tearing down cultural impediments as much as policy ones, former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny said.
•Improve productivity in the public sector. As Gillaspy noted, competition keeps productivity high in the private sector. A similar attitude needs to infect the public sector and the public-private hybrid that is American health care.
These are only a sample of the ideas that belong on state leaders' agendas now. A full-blown Minnesota 2020 workforce strategy should also include improving early childhood education, worker retraining, high school and higher education completion, and the integration of immigrants as both workers and entrepreneurs.
"This is a pretty critical time," Gillaspy said. "To suggest that we can work our way out of this in some kind of linear evolutionary fashion is wrong. We need to be thinking about doing things very differently than we have in the past." Minnesota's candidates for governor can jump-start that thinking.