How one spends one’s last days at work before concluding a long career says something about what one deems important.
That’s why it’s worth noting that last week, during his final days before retiring as senior vice president of public affairs and business development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Bill Blazar went to Maple Grove to talk to a group of seniors about the need for more immigration to shore up Minnesota’s economy.
Blazar, 68, has given that talk scores of times in the 10 years since he grabbed the then-thin immigration policy portfolio at the state chamber and ran with it.
Thanks in large part to his exertions, that portfolio isn’t skinny anymore. Neither is awareness among the state’s employers that the ability of this state to attract more immigrants may decide whether or not they can thrive through the coming labor-short decade.
But some Minnesotans evidently don’t see it that way. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson has gone so far as to propose that the flow of refugees for resettlement in Minnesota should end, at least long enough to tally their public cost. Johnson makes no mention of tallying immigrants’ public contributions.
That inspired me to ask for one precious hour of Blazar’s last pre-retirement week. He gave me nearly two in order to give the case for more immigration the context it deserves — a context he knows well after a quarter-century of interaction with the chamber’s 2,300 member-companies.
“The two things that people should understand and cherish are the diversity of this state’s economy and the fact that it is fundamentally homegrown,” Blazar began.
Minnesota’s mix of businesses large and small, producing a wide variety of goods and services, creates a healthy dynamism and buffers this state from external economic shocks, he explained. That diversity is the result of a high degree of entrepreneurship, of “people willing to start a business here, grow it here and stay here.”
The state’s relatively remote geography helped determine which businesses grew, he continued. “Innovation in Minnesota starts with a sense that we’re in the middle of nowhere and we’ve got to be self-reliant … . In spite of the global economy and all the technology, we’re still 400 miles off the major east-west trade route. If you want to make something here, the ratio of its value to the cost of getting it to the world had better be high.”
That has augured for high-tech, high-creativity, high-talent enterprises. Think the medical-device industry, added-value food processing, and innovators in medical care, retailing and financial services. Keeping Minnesota prosperous requires keeping homegrown innovation coming.
What does that have to do with immigration? Plenty, Blazar said.
He had stats: Forty percent of the Fortune 500 companies in Minnesota were either started by immigrants or their children. A 2014 tally found more than 16,000 immigrants employed in businesses of their own making. Six percent of all Minnesota businesses are immigrant-owned, employing more than 60,000 Minnesotans. Nearly 1 out of 4 workers in Minnesota’s medical-equipment and computer industries in 2014 were foreign-born.
Immigrants often need taxpayer support initially, “but once they get settled, they are an asset this state needs badly,” Blazar said. They are often bilingual. They are familiar with countries in which a middle class is emerging — places that are potential new markets for Minnesota products.
Yet “all too often, Minnesotans’ view of the role of immigrants in the economy is ‘They put the roof on my house and they take care of my parents in the nursing home.’ ”
Those who say that aren’t seeing the whole picture. “There isn’t a company that I visit that doesn’t have immigrant workers.” A 2014 analysis found that foreign-born Minnesotans are slightly more likely to have a bachelor’s or graduate degree than are native-born people.
It’s to Blazar’s credit — and the chamber’s — that he has spent so much time in recent years telling that story. To be sure, it’s not all he has done. He directed the chamber’s Grow Minnesota! business-retention program, which may mean he has seen the inside of more commercial and industrial plants than any other living Minnesotan. When longtime chamber President David Olson died in 2014, Blazar put in a stint as interim president.
Neither is immigration the only story the chamber tells. “Tax competitiveness” — aka business tax cuts — topped its legislative policy agenda this year, as it has pretty much every year in memory. That message has often drowned out the nuance Blazar offers.
But Blazar’s final days before retirement were also spent trying to amp up and enrich the chamber’s messages about the Minnesota economy. He’s been busy revitalizing the Minnesota Chamber Foundation, a 36-year-old appendage that kept a low profile for much of that time. Long-term policy research is among its new missions. So is the Center for Workforce Solutions, which aims to arm businesses with information they need in order to tap underutilized pools of talent — including immigrants.
Blazar may be retiring. But the pro-immigration voice of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce may be about to swell.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.