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How Hennepin County is tackling Minnesota’s employment disparities

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
County Administrator David Hough: “1,400 individuals over the last couple years have come through these programs and have been given internships — or jobs.”

Earlier this month, Hennepin County was awarded a Progress Minnesota award by Finance and Commerce for its “Career Pathways” program, which streamlines applicants through a job-training program and into entry-level positions directly with the county.

The award was recognition of the program’s success; it is part of the county’s efforts to prepare itself for the growing number of open jobs it will see in the next decade, when a wave of aging employees will decide to retire.

But the program has also served to address another pernicious problem, county officials say: that of the state’s persistent economic disparities, largely by creating an alternative pathway to high-paying county jobs outside the more traditional and costly path of earning a college degree. “What we’ve done is created … an opportunity for individuals to work here at Hennepin,” said County Administrator David Hough. “1,400 individuals over the last couple years have come through these programs and have been given internships — or jobs.”

Black Minnesotans continue to trail behind their white counterparts in employment levels, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. In fact, in February, the white unemployment rate dropped to around 3 percent in Minnesota, black unemployment still hovered around 8 percent.

And though black Minnesotans make up only about 6 percent of the state’s population, people of color make up about 32 percent of Hennepin County. Because of that, Hough said,  the county has been ramping up its efforts to make its employee base more representative of the community.

It seems to be working. Since launching the program in 2014, Hough said, almost half of the new hires coming into the county have been people of color. In total, the county employs about 9,000 people, he said, and 28 percent of them are now people of color. “We’re very proud of that,” he said.

One of the reasons the county’s pathway program has been so successful is that they’ve tailored it to mitigate barriers often faced by low-income families, said May Xiong, with Project for Pride in Living (PPL). PPL is one of several community partners that act as liaisons between the communities and the county, Xiong said, to help with the program’s training and recruitment.

Organizations like PPL also help to determine what barriers potential interns and employees are facing and then come up with ways to mitigate them so participants don’t end up dropping out. That can involve finding child care or stable housing, Xiong said, or even just getting students who rely on public transit bus passes to get to and from the training program.

Anwer Alkuhaly went through the program in 2015 after immigrating to Minnesota from Yemen with only $700 to his name. He said the program’s flexibility allowed him to work full time while also attending training sessions. Now, he works as an accountant for the county’s Public Works Financial Management and Accounting department.

Hough said the program has also lifted restrictions on some county jobs that previously required candidates to hold college degrees. Now, through the training program, students can land a job with the county and even work to earn tuition credit if they choose to pursue higher education later.

Alyssa McClain, a Liberian immigrant, went through the program last year and was immediately hired by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office as a probation clerk. McClain doesn’t have a college degree, so she was surprised how quickly she got a job with the county when others she knew with college degrees had waited longer to get hired. “I have a cousin who has a degree in social services, and in order to get into this county, it took her like a year — she kept applying and applying,” she said.

The pathways program operates on an annual budget of about $1 million. But the county will save money in the long run, Hough argues.

For example, as an office clerk, McClain is making almost $19 an hour, which is far more than when she worked in retail. “Even when I was a supervisor, I was only making maybe $14,” she said. That’s the point, said Hough. By creating more opportunities for people to make a living wage, he said, fewer people will need to rely on government assistance to buy food, pay their rent or otherwise support their families.

“I don’t care what political persuasion you are,” he said. “If you show the bottom line, the money savings, that’s a good thing.”

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