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Amid labor shortage, governor candidates debate ways to boost workers in Minnesota

Jeff Johnson, Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jeff Johnson and Tim Walz during Wednesday's gubernatorial debate.

Minnesota’s candidates for governor promised in a debate Wednesday to ease the state’s workforce shortage if elected, but often split on how to fill the profusion of open jobs across some sectors of the economy.

At a hotel in Wayzata, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz argued over how to help students of color better succeed in schools, increase access to child care services and more in an event hosted by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce. The two have addressed many of the issues before, but not always directly through the lens of the state’s workforce shortage.

They spoke after a slate of top business, government and nonprofit thinkers, who spelled out — in sometimes dire terms — the projected shortfall in workers for certain areas, including nursing and agriculture. In nursing, there is an expected shortfall of 1,275 workers by 2020, according to data provided by Real Time Talent, a workforce project started by a large mix of public and private sector groups.

Walz and Johnson agreed the state can do much to fix the looming shortage, fueled in part by retiring baby boomers, and broadly vowed to make it happen. “I can probably speak for the both of us as we travel around the state and talk to small business owners and big business owners, this comes up more often than anything else — even more often than regulation and taxes as a difficult issue for employers,” Johnson said.

Here’s some of what the candidates had to say:

Closing the achievement gap

Minnesota’s dismal achievement gap — the disparity in academic performance between white and minority students — has long been a top priority for government officials to fix and hinders the state’s ability to develop a strong workforce.

Johnson drew from his plan to improve public education to address the gap, including school choice programs and a so-called “parent trigger” that lets a majority of parents force changes to a school. He has also advocated for charter schools in the past. “Empowering parents is not going to solve the problem alone, but it will help those parents who want something different,” he said. Johnson also pushed for weakening teachers unions, with a goal of making it easier to fire teachers who underperform.

Walz, on the other hand, said schools must have more minority teachers and teachers who are culturally competent. He added that the K-12 system should do more to help students address problems outside the classroom — such as lack of housing and food. He endorsed the “full-service community schools” model that provides a range of aid to students and families outside of the typical K-12 school.

Some of those schools have gotten money from the Legislature in recent years. When money is spent on such schools, Walz said, “we see those graduation rates go up, we see the equity gap close, we see the teacher retainment and retention shoot up, and we start to see the things that we want to do.”

Child care

Minnesota has a shortage of child care workers, which adds to labor shortages in other areas, since when parents can’t get child care they’re less likely to enter the workforce. The number of slots for which child care providers are licensed to serve fell by a net of 3,098 between the fiscal years of 2013 and 2017, according to state data.

Walz said the state should look into tax credits to incentivize businesses to have day care at their workplace and said child care workers should make more money. He did not stump for universal pre-kindergarten, which he has supported on the campaign trail.

Johnson, by contrast, blamed the shortage largely on regulation he said was overly stringent, such as safety requirements. Johnson also argued against universal pre-kindergarten.

State lawmakers passed a few measures in 2018 aimed at addressing the workforce shortage in child care, including one that allows the state to consider outside work experience when licensing day care staff to increase hiring.

Boosting jobs in the trades

Walz and Johnson found common ground in their support for increasing in-school training for skilled jobs in trades and for work that doesn’t require a four-year degree. Neither outlined concrete plans for how to boost that vision Wednesday, but both said there should be a shift in culture over how those jobs are perceived by the general public.

Johnson said in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Minnesota, “there’s a belief that if a kid doesn’t get a four-year degree, he or she is just not that successful.”

“And that is really sad,” he said.

Walz said if his 11-year-old son Gus, “comes home and tells me he wants to be an electrician, it’ll be the happiest day in my life because I know there’s employability, I know there’s a skill set, I’ll know it’s where his intelligence lies and the genius of the nobleness of trades.”

Infrastructure and transportation

Many in Minnesota’s business community have been clamoring for better transportation and infrastructure to move goods in the market and workers to their jobs.

Johnson attacked Walz for not opposing an increase in the gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements and said he doesn’t think the approach is “a good answer for Minnesota because we are one of the most overtaxed states in the country.” 

The Republican said he’d also focus efforts on boosting public transportation to creating a world-class bus system rather than new light-rail projects, which he said are not a good return on investment.

Walz countered that he believes light rail is an economic positive and argued that he hasn’t promised a tax increase, only that “we’d look at them and see.” But Walz also made clear he wouldn’t “shy away” from a hike in the gas tax to fund infrastructure if new investments can make a positive difference.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/20/2018 - 12:49 pm.

    Jeff Johnson would sign right to work for less legislation in a heart beat. And it would decimate the construction industry workforce in this state. There is already a labor shortage in the industry already, who thinks that will improve if wages go down?

    The apprenticeships in the building trades are 100% industry funded. There are no tax dollars used. It’s a model that has worked well for generations. Minnesota gets a highly skilled workforce to meet the needs of construction users. Contractors have a ready supply of skilled labor, and can quickly scale up when they land a big job.

    And the jobs are solid middle class jobs, with pensions and health care. The wages circulate throughout the local economy.

    But Johnson would throw it all away in an instant, given the opportunity. He’d rather trash the privately funded apprenticeship programs that work in favor or government funded programs.

    If any industry wants to start an apprenticeship program, they can do it the way the construction industry does, without tax payer dollars.

  2. Submitted by Joseph Totten on 09/20/2018 - 12:52 pm.

    Quality reporting!

    Hopefully Johnson will fund his bus system if elected, hard to understand when all MT funding is being cut.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 09/21/2018 - 09:05 am.

    Put the trades back in High Schools, teach work skills in High School, teach problem solving along with math, reading and writing. You are not employable if you can’t read, write, problem solve and speak English in America. Not that difficult to solve!

  4. Submitted by R. Hanson on 09/21/2018 - 12:22 pm.

    Politicians talking about the trades should be regarded with extreme skepticism. It is unlikely Walz really wants his kid to be an electrician. Pols make these statements as a signal, to demonstrate that they are ‘down to earth’ regular guys, who care about blue collar voters.

    The truth is, the trades are generally not a stable source of employment. Most are volatile, sporadic work that is directly tied to the performance of other sectors and building cycles.

    Before the most recent building boom, MN was a terrible place to be a tradesperson. Construction workers, electricians and the like were underemployed for 15 years.

    Once the current boom ends, pols will go back to emphasizing going to college and “re training” for the out of work tradesperson like they were doing in the past.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/21/2018 - 12:29 pm.

      It has most assuredly not been the case that “Before the most recent building boom, MN was a terrible place to be a tradesperson. Construction workers, electricians and the like were underemployed for 15 years.”

    • Submitted by ian wade on 09/24/2018 - 12:55 pm.

      With all due respect, I personally know many in the trades, specifically drywall, painters and construction management. For the last twenty years, every one of them has had more work than they can handle and each has stressed that fact that they can’t find enough qualified workers

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