The June 29 Business Forum article "Working sick and broke doesn't work," described how lower wage workers find it difficult to support their families on the combination of low wages and minimal, if any, sick leave and other benefits. Many of us would agree, but the article glossed over some important facts that anyone interested in worker wages and prosperity should consider.
Average real wages are, in fact, declining and they have been since 1973. The principal reason is because we have shifted our employment from the production of higher value-added technical goods, such as instruments, computers and special machinery, to lower value-added activities and services. Many respected studies will verify that employee pay and benefits are strongly correlated to the value of the activities performed. There is more money involved in building the world's fastest computers than there is in fast food restaurants, junk mail or turkey processing.
Imagine the Minnesota of 40 years ago. Booming computer companies: Control Data, Unisys, Data 100 and a premier IBM plant in Rochester with more than 8,000 employees. A solid aerospace industry with companies like Honeywell, which also had 8,000 employees, and Lockheed Martin. We had nationally recognized suppliers like Remmele, Hitchcock, Bermo, Kurt and others. Minneapolis-Moline had two large plants here. We had two major airlines based here and two large national banks.
Some of these still exist in one form or another, but our industrial profile has surely been reduced. We still have some excellent companies here, including jewels like 3M, Polaris, Andersen, Marvin, Park Industries and others. But since 1998, Minnesota has lost nearly 88,000 manufacturing jobs — many of them in the high value-added sectors with good wages and benefits.
I applaud the interest our legislators occasionally show in the prosperity of our workers, but the deeper problem of worker prosperity is unlikely to be solved by governmental fiat. Minnesota's Civic Caucus has been examining this situation, with its yearlong study of workforce preparation. Its recommendations are worth reading by all legislators.
If we do want greater prosperity to be enjoyed by more of our citizens, here are some steps we could take:
1. Improve the effectiveness of Minnesota's K-12 education program, which is unimpressive when compared with major industrial competitors whose students experience longer and more rigorous programs and commonly outshine Minnesota students in basic test scores. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Minnesota has fewer class hours per year than any state.
2. Improve Minnesota's amateurish and nonstrategic economic development programs. In the past several decades, Minnesota missed opportunities to work creatively to save the Ford plant, Lockheed Martin and several other important employers.
The Twin Cities Ford Plant always ranked near the top of all Ford assembly plants in quality, productivity and environmental considerations. For years before its closure, it was known that the plant lacked one attribute essential to a modern plant — integrated metal stamping. Minnesota had well-established metal stampers willing to make investments to remedy this shortcoming, but state officials did not pursue cooperative programs that might have saved the plant.
And Minnesota made nearly $1 billion in loans to the controversial takeover artists of Northwest Airlines without insisting on prudent managerial improvements. A few years later, Northwest Airlines, which at the time had Minnesota's largest private payroll, filed for bankruptcy. The loss of these important high-paying companies has reduced the wages and benefits of Minnesota workers.
3. Work with the thoughtful MnSCU educators to improve relevance by shifting educational resources away from delusional and non-substantive, less-important general programs with questionable placement records toward the more sought-after technical programs such as welding, machinery and manufacturing, which are highly regarded by industry.
All of these would be actions open to legislators who might indeed be interested in the true advancement of worker prosperity.
The article by Rep. John Lesch and Sen. Sandra Pappas also states, "We hope that the Legislature will look more kindly in 2016 on our proposal to require Minnesota businesses to offer paid sick leave. We also hope that Minnesota's legislators will consider making a living wage the standard."
Not a bad goal, but as an undergraduate 60 years ago, I can recall a memorable instructor saying: "You cannot give what you do not have." Some legislators are prone to give what they do not have. Too often, the burden of action is assigned to someone else instead of constructive steps in their own spheres of activity. The "hope" expressed by Lesch and Pappas implies nothing for the Legislature to do — only companies.
Many of us would like the situations of less fortunate citizens to improve. Legislators could help best by doing what they are supposed to do: Take the steps to attract and retain strong industry and adequately prepare our young people for meaningful participation in a more competitive world.