Tonya Jordan, an apprentice electrician at Noble Conservation Solutions, is bursting through the achievement gap.
Jordan, 30, a high school dropout, worked at minimum-wage retail and hotel-housekeeping jobs that she described as financial “dead ends.”
Last year, she enrolled in a new program at Summit Academy OIC in north Minneapolis that offers working-poor adults the opportunity to earn their General Education Degree (GED) and a certificate and beginning job in the construction or health care industry.
Within several months, she had earned her GED and completed the certification necessary to be hired as an apprentice electrician.
She’s making $15 an hour and soon will qualify for union membership, health care, a retirement plan and wage increases to $30 an hour as she moves up the ladder to journeyman over a few years.
“I enjoyed learning at Summit and thank them for this opportunity,” Jordan said last week. “My boss recently asked me how long have I been doing this, including school. I said less than a year. He said I was doing very well and that he was proud of me. I felt good about that. It was hard work. My family supports me. I like this work.”
There is a yawning gap in education, achievement and household income between Minnesota white and minority families, particularly blacks.
Minnesota black median household income has hovered around $30,000 for several years, less than half the white median household income of $66,979. Black Minnesotans remain unemployed at nearly three times the rate of white Minnesotans.
This also is a huge economic issue. For years, state demographers have warned that the retirement of the baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, combined with a slow overall population growth threatens economic output. The faster-growing emerging workforce is people of color and immigrants. They need high school degrees and often, such as Jordan, a GED and training to get jobs that pay $15 to $30 an hour.
“This is an important opportunity,” said Steve Cramer, chief executive of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a business group, who also has served in government and as CEO of Project for Pride in Living (PPL), the nonprofit employment trainer that also houses immigrants and the working poor.
“The workforce issue is probably the biggest one facing our economy. We’re having this debate in Minneapolis about mandating a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Or, we can help people grow their income through workforce development and a career.”
Government and business increasingly are joining forces on the issue. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has for several years led a “career pathways” initiative at Hennepin County, itself a huge employer with 13,000-plus workers. And several dozen Hennepin County private employers of 100 to thousands of workers have signed on as partners in the research-train-employ model that has emerged under what is called the Hennepin County Workforce Leadership Council. It is chaired by McLaughlin and Cramer and includes nonprofit trainers and five public colleges in the county.
“We have a chance to move people of color, people disconnected … to connect them to the growing economy … and increase their incomes,” McLaughlin said. “The private sector faces the same demographics as Hennepin County.”
Since 2010, minority hiring in the construction trades and technology has grown faster than white hiring in the Twin Cities area, although it remains less than 10 percent of those employment fields.
Researchers say 35 percent of Hennepin County’s workforce will be eligible to retire by 2025. Some forecasts suggest there will be 100,000 more Twin Cities-area jobs than qualified applicants by 2020. And there already are shortages in IT, transportation, health care and public safety. To prosper, the region’s workforce needs more immigrants and minorities, according to the Hennepin County Consortium, which includes Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, Fairview Health, Thor Construction, Augsburg College, Johnson Controls, the University of Minnesota and Metro Transit.
Last year, the county hired Mike Christenson to scale up the several-year-old Hennepin careers-pathways model. He is an attorney, former head of Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development, and spent several years at Minneapolis Community & Technical College working with employers and educators to design skill-building certificate-and-degree programs. The Hennepin plan boils down to this:
• Educators, particularly at two-year colleges, focus on accelerated programs and training certification that gets people into the workforce at good-wage jobs. Degrees for many come later, often with employer contributions.
• Community organizations such as Summit, PPL, Emerge and Twin Cities Rise train and provide the family support, personal empowerment and other “wraparound” services.
• Students who complete certain requirements are guaranteed paid internships that lead to $15-an-hour jobs and benefits.
Louis King, chief executive of Summit Academy, focused the organization on careers in high-paying construction trades and health care after he learned 15 years ago that these industries would be among the most affected by baby boomer retirements and growth.
“We have a booming economy with 3 percent unemployment and we need to go to the bench,” said King, a 20-year CEO. “Skills, education and network. That’s what we provide. The doors to the middle class are now open to many people who were excluded, traditionally, from jobs that pay great wages. It’s the only way to address the disparities gap.”
Summit gets less than a quarter of its funding from government; the rest comes from tuition, individual, business and foundation support.
In December, Summit received a $250,000 challenge grant from U.S. Bank to help fund its new “1,000 GED Campaign” by 2020. The program helps people earn a GED and become certified for entry-level work in construction or health care within 30 weeks.