You can say it’s a sign of good times. The 2.9 percent unemployment rate registered in Minnesota in August is the lowest since December 1999 and is getting close to the all-time low, 2.5 percent, recorded almost 20 years ago.
But that low rate and other state job measures released last week can also be called signs that a long-predicted demographic squeeze now has Minnesota’s economy in its grip. The growth in the state’s working-age and work-prepared population is not keeping pace with the economy’s demand for workers. One forecast has the state 239,000 workers short of demand by 2022.
While the unemployment rate fell last month, so did the number of jobs employers created, down 200 from July. That could be a blip after several months of strong job growth. But it could also be a sign that the state’s employers can’t find enough workers to hire. Job vacancy numbers released Friday also pointed to that possibility. With more than 142,000 job vacancies last month, the number of unemployed people per vacancy was a record low, while the job vacancy rate was a record high.
But as the state’s jobs agency stressed, the labor supply has not run dry yet — not while the unemployment rate among black and Hispanic Minnesotans is still twice as high as white unemployment, as it was in August.
“Generally, low and stable unemployment and underemployment mean that Minnesota’s economy is running very close to its full potential,” said a statement from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. But in this case, “the differences seen when breaking the numbers out by racial groups shows that there is still room for improvement in Minnesota’s employment situation.”
That message underscores one heard last week at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce’s Talent Symposium: Racially inclusive hiring practices are a key strategy for businesses that aim to thrive during a worker shortage.
Tawanna Black, the founder and CEO of the new Twin Cities-based Center for Economic Inclusion, told the business audience that eliminating racial disparities in employment can add more to the state’s labor pool than efforts to attract newcomers and increase the retirement age combined. But if businesses are serious about hiring more people of color, Black said, they will have to work harder with the public sector on improving transit services, increasing the supply and stability of workforce housing, and offering living stipends as well as tuition subsidies to those enrolled in job-training programs.
That’s not the agenda that the business community has traditionally taken to the State Capitol and local governments. But employers should know that the demographic forecast is for a minuscule 0.1 percent average annual growth rate in Minnesota’s working-age population during the five years beginning in 2020. If that happens, it will be unprecedented in Minnesota annals. It demands an unprecedented response.