If you want to get a sense of how Minnesota is perceived elsewhere, try typing “Minnesota is so” in Google.
The top two recent results in our (very rough, highly unscientific) search: “Minnesota is so boring,” and “Minnesota is so cold.”
Which was surprising — and not just because cold didn’t come in first.
There’s no denying our chilly winters. But boring? With all of our music and theater and public parks and outdoor recreation? Our professional sports teams and nationally renowned art museums? Our foodie-sanctioned restaurants and booming craft-brew scene? Our Garrison Keillor and Prince?
The state and metro area regularly make it onto national Top 10 lists, from best parks to most theater seats per capita to best education to most beard-friendly. Last March’s Atlantic Monthly article “The Miracle of Minneapolis” may have supplied the greatest local publicity since 1973, when then-Gov. Wendell Anderson hoisted a northern pike on the cover of Time magazine to illustrate “The Good Life in Minnesota.”
Still, the state hasn’t fully triumphed over its classic stereotype as a frigid outpost of flyoverland, its culture less than cutting-edge, its citizens well-mannered rubes who talk funny (thanks a lot, “Fargo”).
A negative image isn’t just a blow to state pride; it threatens our economic growth. National research shows that among people in a position to choose business locations, Minnesota is seen as having a strong workforce and diverse business community — but also high taxes and “awful cold, almost nonstop,” said Mike Brown of Greater MSP, a metro-area economic development organization.
“We’re such a sound-bite culture,” Brown said. “How do you tell a little bit deeper story?”
The state needs to strengthen its brand, said Nick Roseth, vice president of technology at SWAT Solutions, a St. Louis Park software quality-assurance firm.
“We’re humble Minnesotans; we don’t really like to talk about ourselves,” Roseth said. “We do a lot of great stuff here but we’re not doing a good enough job of telling our story.”
Roseth is doing something about it. He’s raising money to produce “DocuMNtary: The Story of Tech in Minnesota” (documntary.com), a 30-minute video linked with shorter pieces on topics of interest to its target audience of millennials: culture, recreation, beer. Roseth sees “DocuMNtary” as a tool that schools and companies could use to attract and retain tech workers.
Brown is also involved in projects designed to publicize the state’s lesser-known virtues: lifestyle amenities, a well-educated workforce, a diverse business base that includes 17 Fortune 500 companies, a tradition of civic cooperation.
Greater MSP maintains Make It MSP (makeitmsp.org), a colorful website offering links to jobs, first-person testimonials and extensive information on various local topics, including the weather (“Stop watching ‘Fargo’ and start looking at the reality. It’s much better!”) and education (“When we say ‘all the kids are above average,’ it’s kinda true”).
The state loses potential employees to West Coast cities boasting the tech industry’s marquee names: Apple, Google, Microsoft and so on. But the Twin Cities has lots of smaller tech companies, as well as large corporations in other industries that need employees with tech skills. These days “all companies are tech companies,” Roseth said.
Attracting workers is expected to become an increasingly urgent problem. Industries such as construction, engineering, restaurants and architecture are already facing shortages of skilled employees.
The causes are mainly demographic. Here as in the rest of the country, baby boomers are retiring, with fewer Gen Xers coming up behind them. Birthrates are dropping, meaning the situation won’t improve for at least the next couple of decades.
Meanwhile, 12,000 people ages 16 to 65 leave Minnesota annually, according to a 2013 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center. The result would be a shrinking workforce if it weren’t for about 20,000 people a year immigrating from other countries, producing a net growth of about 8,000 and enriching local culture.
“The state has become so much more culturally diverse,” said Carol Engebretson Byrne, president of Global Minnesota, which changed its name from the Minnesota International Center to reflect the changes it has seen happen here. For example, students in Twin Cities schools speak more than 80 different languages, Byrne said. Global Minnesota works to make connections between Minnesotans and foreign visitors or residents.
The labor force is currently growing by about one-half of 1 percent a year, but that’s projected to drop to one-tenth of 1 percent by 2020 and should not improve much through at least 2045. Compare that with 2.7 percent a year in the 1970s, when baby boomers were first getting jobs.
More jobs than people to fill them? That might sound like good news to college graduates still waiting tables and living with their parents. But a stagnant labor force is a drag on the state’s economic growth. It erodes tax revenue, at a time when an aging population needs more public services. Ultimately, the Demographic Center’s report warns, it could threaten Minnesota’s celebrated quality of life.
“Quality of life doesn’t attract people to the Twin Cities. It keeps them from leaving,” Myles Shaver, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said last year at a meeting of local leaders.
Nebulous, perhaps, but Minnesota’s quality of life might be its greatest strength. Without mountains or coastline, the state may never beat the Bay Area or Seattle for glamour. But many find living here just as pleasant, and far more affordable.
Hence the adage among recruiters and area boosters: It’s hard to get people to come to Minnesota, and it’s hard to get them to leave.
And not just because their cars won’t start.