Minnesota’s enviable but temporary projected budget surplus must be applied first to investing in our increasingly diverse workforce, easily the most important resource on which our long-term prosperity depends.
Amid all the conventional signs of growth and prosperity at the top end, with high profits and low unemployment generally, far too many Minnesotans underneath continue to suffer from economic distress and a lack of skills for today’s workplace.
We see increasing evidence of stubborn racial disparities and large pockets of high unemployment and under-employment, exemplified by unrest on the north side of Minneapolis and layoffs on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Meanwhile headlines blare stories about worker shortages almost everywhere else.
These two sets of problems are made for each other and should compel legislators to focus as never before on expanding and improving workforce training and boosting post-secondary credential attainment.
Many policy tools present themselves for attacking workforce disparities and upgrading skills. But one in particular, generally described in shorthand as “Career Pathways,’’ stands out. The Career Pathway approach may be the most promising new way of moving our tens of thousands of under-educated and hard-to-employ youth and adults quickly on their way to the tens of thousands of jobs that will need to be filled in the near future, as baby boomers retire en masse.
A recent visit to the Anoka County Workforce Center in Blaine provided an overview of three Career Pathway programs, which are considered among the more effective in Minnesota. Success rates, meaning that graduates are hired and are retained in better paying jobs than they had before, exceed 80 percent.
Similarly successful programs are getting attention and funding, from the Itasca County Rural Success Pathways, to Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s breakthrough on replacing county workers, to health care Career Pathway programs in Rochester’s medical mecca. African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and all communities of color are particularly well served by the Career Pathways models.
Anoka County’s Career Pathway administrators enthusiastically explained to our group how intensive “wraparound’’ support — including extra help with child care, transportation, social services and tutoring and mentoring — helps participants get their lives together while they also get both academic and hands-on training.
The Anoka County model offers three kinds of Career Pathway training that are closely aligned with actual employers and labor demand in the northern Twin Cities suburbs: Precision Sheet Metal Training, Office & Administrative Technology Training, and Health Care Pathways Training.
For each of those tracks, participants get quality assessments, training in study skills and personal empowerment, and then both technical college level credits and practical training that leads to certification, and immediate hiring. From start to finish, the process takes a matter of weeks, rather than months or years, and graduates have a solid foundation of training and credits on which they can continue to build.
Business leaders, philanthropies, and highly regarded academic researchers are increasingly impressed and supportive of Career Pathways, and particularly in Minnesota.
A case in point is the book “Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century,“ and published this year with the cooperation of Federal Reserve Bank units, Rutgers University, and the W.E. Upjohn Institute. The book includes a chapter entitled, “A New Way of Doing Business: The Career Pathway Approach in Minnesota and Beyond,” and co-authored by top workforce officials in Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Thomas Norman and Nola Speiser. Other contributors to that chapter were Brian Paulson of the Pohlad Family Foundation, Whitney Smith of the Joyce Foundation, and Vickie Choitz of the Aspen Institute and Center for Law and Social Policy.
The chapter begins with this basic description of the faster track provided by the emerging Career Pathways models: “The…approach connects progressive levels of education, training, support services and credentials for specific occupations in a way designed to optimize the progress and success of individuals with varying level of abilities and needs, including those with limited education, skills, English and/or employment experience.’’
Also this: “The career pathway approach truly is a new way of doing business; therefore it has taken time for partners to come together and align services, programs, funding, and data _ all of which must be well established before rigorous evaluation is appropriate.’’ The literature on Career Pathways always emphasizes how it integrates in partnership all the key players: employers themselves, community and technical colleges, non-profits and communities of color, adult basic education providers and federal, state and local social service agencies.
Lucky for us, Minnesota’s progress toward Career Pathways is more advanced than in most states, with growing bipartisan support in the Legislature and from Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. Funding from the 2015 Legislature for Pathways to Prosperity, Minnesota’s competitive career pathways grants program, leaped from $3M to $11.3M, more than triple the amount in the previous biennium. This investment needs to be expanded greatly and the consensus for it transcends party and ideology.
No less an authority than the esteemed Itasca Project, comprising some of the best and brightest leaders of our state’s largest corporations, issued a report last spring with the highlighted bottom line that “our regional competitiveness depends on broadening opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”
The Minnesota Budget Project, a respected voice for the non-profit community and the disadvantaged populations they mostly serve, had this to say about the budget surplus last week: “Too many Minnesotans are being left behind, and the state’s future economic success depends on broader participation in the workforce. Our tax and budget choices should prioritize strategies that expand economic opportunity for working Minnesotans across the state and allow them to find the jobs they need.’’
As the Minnesota authors of the Transforming U.S. Workforce book declare in summary: “We need policy changes across federal and state agencies that support the career pathways approach,’’ including flexibility with student financial aid and increased funding and expansion of Career Pathway programs that are most effective.
There really is no better first claim for our projected budget surplus.
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader and more inclusive economic prosperity for Minnesota.