The outlook for Minnesota jobsby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's jobs picture this Labor Day is decidedly mixed. The state economy is adding jobs at a much stronger pace than the national average. And a new state survey shows a growing number of job vacancies. The problem is the pay rate for many of the jobs is low. The median hourly wage is just $10. There are other troubling prospects on the horizon as well.
St. Paul, Minn. — Twice a year Steve Hine and his colleagues at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development ask 10,000 employers in the state what jobs are available.
Hine says the most recent survey shows job creation is at one of the highest rates of the past decade.
"We've added nearly 80,000 jobs over the last twelve months," he says. "Over the last year Minnesota's job level has increased by 2.9 percent, quite a bit more than 1.3 percent we've seen nationally."
Rochester jobs counselor Susan Lawler's reaction to the robust jobs picture is, "Where are they? I'd like to know where they are?"
Lawler helps people who are over 50 years old find work. She's employed by Experienceworks an agency funded by the federal department of labor. She says many of her clients are telling her they can't find a job.
Lawler says one reason is employers routinely discriminate against older job seekers. She says employers reject hiring them parttime or allowing them to share a job -- options which some older workers prefer. She says, "Employers better take a look at that because we're going to have a lot of them."
State economist Tom Stinson agrees. Stinson is upbeat about the state's job creation record the past few months. But population projections for Minnesota show changes ahead.
Stinson says the pool of younger people entering the workforce is much smaller than the tidal wave of baby boomers a few decades ago. He says, "We need to be thinking about how do we maintain the skill level of the entire workforce, not just the people that are coming in."
If the economy continues to grow and job creation continues apace Stinson says there could be a shortage of skilled workers in the next decade. He says that means employers reluctant to retain or hire skilled older workers because of wage or benefits costs will need to change their attitudes.
"The demographics are going to force some adjustments," Stinson says. "Once you begin to lose significant portions of your workforce and there aren't the number of new entrants coming in you're going to have to be more aggressive."
Being more aggressive about retraining current employees and recruiting older workers is music to the ears of a Twin Cities man recently laid off and looking for work.
"Just with all the technological changes and stuff like that there's a feeling I've got to bone up a little bit and learn a little bit more to stay competitive," he says.
The man doesn't want to be identified for fear of hurting his chances with potential employers. He's a well educated specialist just laid off from a good paying job he had for nearly a decade in an industry now going through a downturn.
He doesn't dispute state numbers showing there are plenty of job vacancies out there. However he says the offerings are thin in what he's trained to do. At 41 years of age he says, he's looking for work that offers some security.
"What job is it that I can do that won't be outsourced or is in an industry that isn't highly volatile?" he asks "Because I think one of the things that I find as I get older is that I get more conservative."
The state jobs survey shows vacancies in lines of work that offer a measure of security and a living wage for people with math and science skills and for registered nurses.
Far more numerous are entry level jobs such as health care attendant, retail clerk or food service worker positions where the hourly pay ranges from $7 to $10.
Some Minnesotan's argue $10 an hour is close to a living wage at least in rural areas. The cost of living especially housing in many outstate communities the argument goes is much lower.
Lisa Graphenteen doesn't buy it. Graphenteen works for a non profit in Slayton in southwestern Minnesota that helps people find housing. She says a good share of the less expensive housing needs major repair work that cuts deeply into family budgets. Many of the jobs that are available, Graphenteen says, don't cover the costs.
"You can still go into some communities here and purchase a house for $40,000 to $50,000," she says. "But then again you kind of have to look at what is the condition of the house and how much does the family have to put into rehabbing the house and what kind of wages do they earn? So it may be that some of the housing is a little less expensive but the household may be earning less as well."
Ray Howe describes Minnesota's job picture as fragile. The self employed Red Wing resident says people he knows hold 2 or 3 jobs to make a living. Howe says the employment picture for some families doesn't offer much security given the debt some are in.
"If you look at the statistics on the number of people in any given county in Minnesota and Wisconsin that have these what I would call funny real estate loans, interest only or adjustable rate mortgages, they are extremely vulnerable to any downtick in the economy because if one household member loses their job they're out on the street," he says.
Economist Tom Stinson says a strength of Minnesota's workforce over the past 50 years has been a relatively high level of education compared to other states.
However, Minnesota's high school graduation rate, still one of the highest in the country, is declining slightly and among some groups Stinson says the rate is worrisome.
"The numbers are really disturbing when you look at minorities," Stinson says. "But if you look at the white majority we're still not maintaining that level even with the white majority population."
Stinson says job prospects for Minnesotans with little education or training are very poor in a world where companies can do business overseas and hire workers for as little as a few dollars a day.
Leslie Frost says she's seeing a steady growth in the number of people who aren't making it in the job market. Frost directs Families Moving Forward a north Minneapolis nonprofit that helps 60 families a year, about 300 adults and children with education, jobs and housing. She says many of the adults made bad decisions early in life including not finishing school. The families have fallen into a cycle of poverty for which she says there's no quick fix.
Frost says Minnesota's strategy for stemming the rising tide should include a school readiness program for the children and help for their parents.
"That's a 20 or 30 year effort," she says. "But if we did that for 20 or 30 years we'd make a sea change in the lowest income strata of Minnesotan's."
Most Minnesotan's are not poor. In fact, Tom Stinson says, the state ranks in the top 10 for per capita income -- a key indicator of prosperity. That's up from a ranking of about 25th in per capita income 50 years ago.
Why the dramatic progress? Part of the reason Stinson says can be traced to investments in education and training made 5 decades ago.
"Wise leaders, public and private leaders in the l950's invested in the quality of the Minnesota labor force, and that's what drove the economy to be so strong compared to the rest of the U. S.," says Stinson.
Stinson says he doesn't know what is the right amount of public dollars to be investing in Minnesota's work force. He says what people need to be asking is if the current level of investment by the public, by employers and by workers themselves will sustain the level of prosperity the state is now enjoying.
- All Things Considered, 09/04/2006, 5:19 p.m.