Two things are happening simultaneously in Minnesota: While the unemployment rate for the general population has been declining, economic disparities between the state as a whole and its black communities have been growing.
Researchers have documented these disparities in the state for years. The latest data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) show that while Minnesota has seen a stronger upward economic gain in recent years (unemployment has dropped to 3.8 for all workers in Minnesota), joblessness remains in the double digits for black or African-American communities (14.1 percent unemployment as of December 2015).
To address these disparities, Gov. Mark Dayton announced a new office last year: The Office of Career and Business Opportunity is aimed at connecting disadvantaged groups across Minnesota with employment and business opportunities. Based inside DEED, the office will have three staff members: an assistant commissioner, a director and a programs manager.
MinnPost sat down with DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben to talk about the work of the office and how it plans to address the issues of economic disparities in the state.
MinnPost: What will the Office of Career and Business Opportunity do?
Katie Clark Sieben: It’s the first office created at DEED that’s focused on serving specific populations within our state. The governor announced this new office to serve our communities of color across the state.
At a time when our state’s economy is actually doing really well — we’re seeing job growth, we just got named No. 1 for job creation in the country — we have some specific communities in our state that are not experiencing that economic growth. And so the governor started this office to focus on that specific area of opportunity.
MP: How do you think the office will achieve that?
KCS: There are four areas of focus for this office: DEED has programs that are focused on targeting individuals of color; one of those programs is called Pathways to Prosperity, where we’re encouraging public-private partnerships across this state that are helping to connect individuals with jobs in demand.
[Another is] supporting entrepreneurs of color in getting new business start-ups across the state. Some of this work has already started, even though we don’t have an assistant commissioner [for the new office] yet. Just this week, we sent out surveys to over 3,000 businesses across the state, asking them to share best practices on diversity and inclusion.
And so, we’re going to take all that data and take a look at what information we received and how DEED can help support businesses across the state and make sure that they are outreaching to various communities, that they’re hiring a diverse, talented pool — and retaining, creating an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to all cultures and welcoming to our communities of color.
And the fourth focus is participation in state government. The governor has a diversity and inclusion council that’s internal to the state government council. So it’s made up of multiple commissioners. And we’re focused on state government as an employer. And we are hiring, recruiting and retaining a diverse work force within state government agencies.
I also think this office will work closely with other equity offices. So there’s an office of procurement in the department of administration that specifically focuses on recruiting businesses owned by people of color.
MP: There are many programs trying to address these economic disparity issues in the state. How will the new office be different?
KCS: This office is specifically focused on career development and business development: How are we connecting individuals with good-paying jobs, family-sustaining wages? Are we supporting entrepreneurs of color and helping new business start-ups across the state? DEED has existing programs that are doing this work, but it will serve as a new function, new outreach office. Also taking a look at DEED as an agency, is there anything we can be doing differently in our existing grant programs and practices that we have here within our agency?
MP: In addressing these disparities, will the office work on issues at the policy level or will it go into communities and neighborhoods?
KCS: It will be in the community, working with the communities, and identifying areas of opportunity to drive the disparity numbers down. It’s also focused on policies here at DEED, programs here at DEED, things that we need to be thinking about or doing differently.
MP: I know that DEED is seeking an assistant commissioner. Where is the hiring process at now and when will it be finalized?
KS: Right now, we’re hiring the assistant commissioner. So, we’re in the process of reviewing résumés and doing interviews with a goal of hiring that person by next month. Then, I want that person to be involved in the process of hiring the rest of the staff.
MP: How much will the operating budget for the office be?
KCS: That will be up for discussion this legislative session. [The office creation] was announced outside of legislative session. But right now, we’re using existing funds at the agency to get an assistant commissioner hired and on board. Then I’m hopeful we’ll have some support from the Legislature.
MP: Earlier, you said that the office will serve black and African-American men. Is it only black and African-American men that the office is going to focus on?
KCS: The office will serve all communities. Disparities in our state are impacting multiple communities. Some of the statistics that really stand out to me are that 50 percent of black, African-American children in Minnesota are living in poverty, 50 percent of Ojibwe children are living in poverty, 34 percent of Hmong children are living in poverty.
There are multiple communities that are not experiencing the economic upswing that we’ve had since the recession. Individuals with disabilities are facing a very high unemployment rate. Long-term unemployed people have very high unemployment rates. Individuals in poverty have high unemployment rates.
We know … baby boomers are retiring. We have job creation happening across the state. So somehow we need to get all of our communities, all of our eligible workers across the state, connected to the open positions that we have. So this office is going to focus broadly on all communities of color, but I do think we’ll have a special emphasis on the black, African-American population, given the disparities that we do have here in Minnesota.
MP: Is this the first time that DEED has an office working directly with communities of color?
KCS: This is the first time we have a dedicated office. But right now, we do have outreach managers that are specifically focused on outreach to communities of color within our work-force development division. And we do have programming — largely grant programs — in work-force development and in business development that are targeting entrepreneurs of color or individuals of color.
But I think this will raise that work up to a whole new level and give it a new focus, making sure that outreach is effective, that we are an inclusive agency internally and that we also are inclusive in making sure nonprofits across the state are aware of grant opportunities, and businesses across the state are aware of grant opportunities that are available to them.