February 27, 2020

Dillon Donnelly: Let's get to work on workforce development

Workforce development is a forgotten issue in St. Paul, which is limiting the economic potential for both our city and its residents.

Minnesota has an aging workforce and a dearth of younger workers to backfill these positions. We’re projected to have a shortage of hundreds of thousands of workers in less than a decade. St. Paul isn’t insulated from workforce issues.

Adding to the problem, employers are experiencing a pressing need for workers. Minnesota has 114,000 unfilled jobs. We don’t have a problem creating jobs; we have a problem filling jobs. It’s one of the most misunderstood political concepts.

Talk to a brewery, manufacturer or Ecolab; they’re hiring. We need to re-engage locally to create a robust workforce for St. Paul. In an economic climate with historically low unemployment levels, coupled with a high number of unfilled jobs, we’re not capitalizing on an opportunity to expand employment to many different groups of people.

While quick to point out how our businesses can do better as employers, St. Paul city officials should employ a far more effective approach: collaboration.

Coalesce behind an initiative we all can rally behind: clearing a path for those out of the workforce to join the labor pool.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from Minnesota Compass, a project of Wilder Research, make the case: For starters, the number of people out of the workforce in St. Paul is substantial. More than 20,000 people ages 25 to 54 (prime-age labor) live in St. Paul and are not working.

The number of people out of the workforce increases to more 40,000 if we include ages 18 to 64.

It’s important to note that not everyone can work. Our most critical, disadvantaged residents deserve the care, consideration and access to resources to live a life of dignity.

With an overall adult population more than 230,000, the total number of people not in the labor force is more than 70,000. These figures illustrate the magnitude of the problem and why workforce development is a prudent investment for our city.

While the mayor and City Council continue to apply downward pressure on our employers with an impending minimum wage increase, they fail to recognize that many residents live without an income. Coupled with the fact that the city doesn’t have a strategic plan, let alone a dedicated contact for workforce development, it makes their calls for economic justice sound hollow.

Employing our most disadvantaged residents should be an aspirational goal. An effective approach to assist people into the labor force is to identify, address and remove inhibitors impeding sustained employment.

We need to generate ideas on child care, connect people with disabilities to employment opportunities and facilitate with our manufacturing community transitional programs for people leaving correctional facilities.

A series of small, consistent, targeted policies and partnerships dedicated to removing barriers for our most disadvantaged residents will clear a path for many to the workforce.

Dillon Donnelly works in manufacturing and lives in St. Paul.

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