Urgency for a better-trained Minnesota workforce

/ 9 March 2013 / eunice

Lori Sturdevant, Star Tribune Commentary, March 9, 2013 – Readers scanning this newspaper for Minnesota economic trends found a telling freeze-frame on Thursday’s business cover.

Juxtaposed were good news and bad news. A Wal-Mart perishable-food distribution center is coming to Mankato, adding 300 jobs by 2015; IBM is relocating some of its Rochester manufacturing operations to New York and Mexico, shedding up to 200 jobs by next year.

You win some, you lose some, you might shrug — until you read that the new Wal-Mart jobs are projected to pay $9 to $10.99 per hour, and recall (OK, I looked it up) that the average manufacturing wage in southeastern Minnesota was $24.73 an hour in 2011.

And you see on the same day a report that an insufficient supply of skilled workers contributes to hiring difficulty in two out of five state job vacancies in nursing, engineering and production, the high-skill fields surveyed by the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Minnesota can’t afford too many business news days like that. Not if it’s going to stay prosperous enough to educate workers for a knowledge-based economy while simultaneously seeing us baby boomers through our dotage.

That thought took me to the state House floor for a chat with state Rep. Paul Marquart.

Why Marquart? The seven-term DFLer from Dilworth is a social-studies teacher and former mayor who’s emerging as a reform-minded chair of the House K-12 finance committee. He’s the spark plug for talk about developing a real strategy for raising the educational attainment of the state’s workforce.

He’s aiming high. The theme of a big joint committee hearing he orchestrated on Feb. 19 was “The World’s Best Workforce.”

That would seem a laughably audacious goal but for two things. One: The imminent surge in the share of the state’s population that has passed age 65 is so big and disruptive that it demands a big response.

Two: The way Marquart tells it, Minnesota’s workforce is not as far from “world’s best” status as you might think.

The demographic challenge is no surprise. As former state demographer Tom Gillaspy liked to tell it, on average, people age one year every 12 months. Boomers are becoming seniors right on schedule.

Still, the charts and graphs Gillaspy successor Susan Brower has been bringing to hearings have brought fresh focus to the issue. Annual labor force growth will plummet to nearly zero in the next dozen years, Brower says. The number of Minnesotans in the 65-plus set will more than double; the working-age population will shrink, and the only growth to speak of in the under-18 population will be among minority-race groups that Minnesota hasn’t been educating very well.

That’s a demographic recipe for shrinking prosperity — unless workforce productivity increases. It’s why Marquart says this can’t be a status-quo year in education budgeting.

“The key to our prosperity is going to be having the world’s best workforce — and education is going to be how we get there,” he said.

More specifically, fixing what ails education is now urgent. Topping the list of ills is the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students.

You’ve heard that before, too. Politicians have been talking about it since a president named Reagan came to Hopkins, Minn., in 1983 to release a report aptly named “A Nation At Risk.”

“I have a study from Stanford University that says that if the achievement gap had been closed in the 15 years after that report, the U.S. economy today would be $1.3 trillion larger,” Marquart said. “That’s larger than the GDP amount lost in the Great Recession. The achievement gap is the equivalent of a Great Depression.”

The chance to avert a depression is clearly a motivating notion to this son of the Red River Valley, where the gray tsunami is landing early. Marquart wants to restructure state K-12 spending as a set of carrots and/or sticks for improved test scores and graduation rates, he said. It should be applied to “a data-driven, research-based plan” for change.

“We know what works,” he said. It’s both early childhood education and all-day kindergarten. He doesn’t want to settle for either/or.

It’s research-driven literacy instruction. Minnesota’s ranking in reading lags its math scores — which are good enough to give credence to Marquart’s claim that “world’s best” is within reach.

“Lastly, you mesh high school and higher ed and employers together, so we’re all on the same page.” With MnSCU chancellor Steven Rosenstone in the lead, that work is well begun in the past year.

“The day is gone that we just plop money onto the formula,” Marquart said, referring to the per-pupil funding scheme that has been in force for 42 years. “Any new dollars that go into the system must go to strategies and efforts that have a proven record of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap. Every single dollar has to produce extra value, not only to the student but to the community overall.”

Marquart is a man on a mission. “We’ve got to get moving,” he stressed. “Can we get to the world’s best workforce? Not only can we; we absolutely must.”

He exhibits an urgency that’s often been lacking through 30 years of hand-wringing about the achievement gap. He’s evidently been reading the business pages.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She blogs at Minnesota Matters.