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‘If we are not making investments in our future, we will be in trouble’: a Q&A with outgoing DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy

As Hardy leaves DEED, the agency can boast about Minnesota’s record-low unemployment numbers and a overall robust economy. But that doesn’t paint a complete picture of the state’s workforce.

Shawntera Hardy
Shawntera Hardy: "When governor Dayton took office in January of 2011, the unemployment rate for black Minnesotans was 23.5 percent. As of today, our job reports have black Minnesotans at 5.4 percent [unemployment]: still double the overall unemployment rate but far from that 23.5 percent."

Shawntera Hardy, the commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), is one of the many Cabinet members from Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration who have not applied to stay on the job once DFLer Tim Walz takes over the governor’s mansion in January.

Hardy has been the head of DEED for a relatively short two-year stint, but she will soon be moving on. She has a Bush Foundation fellowship lined up and plans to rejoin Civic Eagle, the technology company she co-founded that helps users track bills and other action at state legislatures.

As Hardy leaves DEED, the agency can boast about record-low unemployment numbers and a robust overall economy. But that doesn’t paint a complete picture of Minnesota’s workforce. The state also faces an escalating number of job vacancies, largely the result of a wave of baby boomers retiring and not enough qualified people around to take their place. Today, there are more than 140,000 open jobs across the state, according to DEED. Hardy said even in her own agency, she has “more people that have been here for over 30 years than not. They all can retire.”

Before joining DEED, Hardy was Dayton’s deputy chief of staff and led projects such as diversifying the ranks of state government leaders. Walz’s transition team has not announced its next DEED commissioner, but Cabinet members are expected to be named this month.

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MinnPost caught up with Hardy to ask about her time in office and the challenges DEED will face without her. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MinnPost: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the next commissioner? What advice would you have for them?

Shawntera Hardy: What I will say is that Minnesota is well positioned economically, not only nationally but also internationally. And so whoever is coming to this position, they have to know that they are inheriting a state that is in good economic standing.

We have an overall unemployment rate of just around 2.8 percent. We, just in January of last year, hit over 2.5 million private sector jobs — the first time in state history — and so the list goes on. We’re always in the top five for the best state to do business. So with that comes the foundation of a state that’s working.

My first advice is to put the word “challenge” on the back burner, that you’re walking into an opportunity to go from good to great and know that when issues arise — such as making sure that all Minnesotans have access, equal opportunity; when it comes to career choices here in the state, looking at issues such as disparities — there’s opportunities because we right now have over 140,000 open jobs. And so being able to connect Minnesotans to those jobs is a opportunity. It’s how you frame the work.

MP: Like you said, there’s a low unemployment rate and the rosy list of numbers goes on. But there’s a bunch of open jobs at the same time. We’ve got sort of a crushing workforce shortage. How do you square those two things?

SH: Very clearly all Minnesotans need to be in the career force ecosystem. So it’s starting with number one: understanding who is unemployed. I mentioned that we have an overall 2.8 percent unemployment rate. For communities of color, in some places it’s two to three times that.

That’s where the opportunity is, is making sure that those communities are seeing all of their residents as being able to participate in the workforce. Minnesotans with disabilities: making sure that we are providing opportunities for them to perform at the highest of their ability and to be in the workforce.

So there is opportunity. … There are people on the bench and on the sideline — it’s making sure we get them off sideline, and then it’s making sure that we’re smart about our young people and in our communities, especially in our Greater Minnesota communities, making sure that we are connecting them to opportunities to learn and live … making sure that we can keep them in the state.

Yes, we have a later labor shortage, partly because we have a number of Minnesotans that are retiring. Many Minnesotans started work at a very young age and some have a kind of second wind in them. How are we making sure that we are not forgetting about that part of the population that may want to experience a new part of career, which in turn may make us have to think differently about the workforce environment?

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It’s, to me, pretty exciting. Yes, it is daunting because we have jobs open now, but if we’re not being thoughtful about how are we looking across that continuum of opportunity to ensure that we are providing access to the workforce, then it’s a challenge.

MP: What are some good things that you all have done and what are some things that are still left to work on when it comes to addressing economic disparities?

SH: Let me give you a very clear stat for us because it was one that really took our work into overdrive: When Governor Dayton took office in January of 2011, the unemployment rate for black Minnesotans was 23.5 percent. As of today, our job reports have black Minnesotans at 5.4 percent [unemployment]: still double the overall unemployment rate, but far from that 23.5 percent.

That, number one, has taken intentional and courageous conversations to face that. To say, “Yes, our overall numbers have us growing … but not all Minnesotans are sharing in this prosperity.”

It took investment and partnership from the Governor and the Legislature. In 2016, they invested $35 million. That was a start. And it took private sector: You have work happening on the north side, on the east side, on the reservations, in Greater Minnesota; you have a task force that’s come together, you have plans that are very clear that they’re focused on equity.

You have targeted investment: who we do business with. And changing our procurement and making sure that we’re providing that, not just, “Let’s invest these dollars to help you with training, let’s invest these dollars to help with wealth creation and business development …”

When you look at the demographic changes that are on the horizon for Minnesota, the state demographer has told us that over the next 20 years — in terms of any population growth that we will have — 70 percent will come from people of color. And so if we are not making investments in our future, we will be in trouble.

MP: This answer can be broader than just about economic disparities if you want it to be, but is there anything you think the Legislature hasn’t done that they could do that you think would be impactful for issues facing your agency?

SH: What I will say specifically for my agency is continuous investment in talent. Making sure that we’re invested in our training program, making sure that we are invested in our education institutions that we partner with in order to take skills to the next level. That has to continue.

We have to make sure that we are investing in our infrastructure. If individuals don’t have access to high quality transit and transportation, high quality broadband in order to do the work, that’s the future. … The other area specifically for DEED is in terms of business development and making sure that our businesses have what they need to continue to thrive because those things are important.

I’ll say outside of my area we have to make sure — and this is connected to the infrastructure — that our systems are secure. If we’re going to move to put everything in the cloud we have to make sure we are investing in cyber security, making sure that we’re investing in technology related to our top industries ….  We have to make sure that our infrastructure is strong now and into the future.

Then the last thing I’ll say to your question regarding state government, related to your earlier point about labor shortages: The state of Minnesota has a very seasoned workforce; many of them that will be retiring have already started retiring. The Legislature must invest in the succession planning resources that are needed.

MP: Since you’ve been in this position, is there anything that DEED has done that has worked extremely well, a program that you’re proud of? And are there any that you could say that you could look back on and say ‘I think that hasn’t worked very well?’

SH: What I’ll say is related to our equity work, specifically our marquee program Pathways to Prosperity, we went from a $7 investment in that program to a close to $18 million dollar investment in that program. That program is focused on providing training and wraparound resources such as access to transportation, child care and other things. That program has been successful.

Then, outside of really investing more in that program, we changed our systems and so how do we make sure that we provide access to smaller, culturally competent geographically focused organizations, and not just fund the same organizations with our grant resources. We opened that up … to a more community focus, community and expert panels to make decisions on all of our grants. That has been amazing.

The Legislature on the business side decided that they would not continue to invest in the Angel Tax program. That left a gaping hole in the state’s commitment to investing in early startups and entrepreneurship. And so we created a new program called the MILE program, which provides interest free loans to early-stage businesses. And so I’m very excited about that. We’re in the pilot stages of that program we’ve invested in for high tech startups. Three owned and operated by women. And we are looking to see where that program goes next. And so those are things that have really been exciting.

The Legislature didn’t fully fund broadband and so that’s a disappointment. …

[Since 2011, Dayton has proposed more than $240 million in rural broadband spending, according to DEED spokesman Shane Delaney. The Legislature has authorized about $85.6 million for rural broadband in that time period, Delaney said.]

I’ll say, you know, getting funding to ensure that Minnesotans with disabilities have access to career opportunities. We were successful at the Legislature to get a $7 million investment in that. And I’m hoping that next session that we’ll get that same level of investment to continue to provide career services to Minnesotans with disabilities.

MP: What do you hope is your legacy in the DEED office from your two years there?

SH: I hope my commitment to what I call equity and excellence. How are we making sure that we’re investing in everyone and that the return on investment is high? How do we make sure that we’re delivering services that are excellent, that we’re providing processes that are in the spirit of continuous improvement and the spirit of making sure that we’re meeting people where they are? That’s what I hope.

Equity and excellence is core to what we do for us to achieve our mission that really focuses on how do individuals, businesses and communities connect to prosperity and independence. And so I’m hoping that’s seen as a part of my legacy.