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Minnesota’s ‘Think Big’ effort aims to produce ‘World’s Best/Smartest Workforce’

The one “must” from the legislative briefing: The state must start getting to kids who are growing up in poverty before they get to kindergarten.

Minnesota is going to need every single kid, from every single demographic, to be educated and motivated.
Creative Commons/Josh Grenier

Sometimes, politicians do think big. Sometimes, pols even do more listening than talking.

Tuesday night, for example, members from a number of House education-related committees gathered to take on the subject of “The World’s Best/Smartest Workforce.”

This hearing was the idea of Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

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Marquart, a social studies teacher by profession, is among those pols who seem to believe that the Legislature is capable of more than partisan bickering.

And for at least one night, DFLers and Republicans sat and listened to a long list of speakers who talked about Minnesota’s future and what must happen for the state to remain economically strong and retain its quality of life.

The focus was education and, at times, some of those testifying tossed around such phrases as “encourage innovative solutions at the local level.” Words such as “cohorts” and “aspirational” prompted a few glances at wristwatches.

And someone might want to clue in presenters that after about 15 PowerPoint presentations, all graphs and bullet points begin to look alike.

The coming changes

But mostly, this was pretty straightforward stuff:

• Minnesota’s getting older fast.

• 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require education beyond high school by 2018.

• The fastest-growing portion of our under-age-18 population is kids of color, and they have the lowest high-school graduation rates.

Kathy Annette
Blandin FoundationKathy Annette

It’s not hard to see what happens in Minnesota if those fundamentals aren’t addressed — and quickly.

The one “must” to come out of the three-hour session: The state must start getting to kids who are growing up in poverty before they get to kindergarten.

An early start means those kids can compete in the classroom. Without an early start, they won’t.

No one was more passionate about that subject than Kathy Annette, president of the Blandin Foundation.

The door “closes” on kids by the age of 5, she said, if they haven’t been exposed to pre-K programs. Those programs are in their infancy – and even in Gov. Mark Dayton’s pro-kid, pro-education budget, there’s not a huge kick start.

“What are you waiting for?” Annette asked the legislators. “What are we all waiting for?”

Shortage of top tech talent

There was another message heard throughout the course of the testimony. There are more good-paying jobs in Minnesota than qualified job candidates.

“Top tech talent is hard to find in Minnesota,” said Rick King, chief operating officer of  the Technology division of Thomson Reuters, which once upon a time was West Publishing. “You could say that in the technology area, we have full employment in the Twin Cities.”

But training more people for ever-changing tech jobs is not a simple matter.  Our institutions — be they political or educational — don’t move as rapidly as changes in technology.

Rep. Paul Marquart
Rep. Paul Marquart

King noted, for example, that there is a big need at his company for website developers. The demand is so high that the University of Wisconsin-Stout is creating a degree in web development.

But that’s not as easy as it might appear on paper. First, the school has to find people who can teach the discipline before it can offer it.

“So the program’s not going to be available until 2014,” King said, “and that means we won’t have the first graduates until 2018. By then, maybe it will be obsolete.”

So these were the sorts of real-world problems legislators were hearing about on a cold February night.

Good news, bad news, hopeful news

There was good news: Minnesota’s best high-school students are outperforming most states and countries in the world in math.

There was bad news: The black-white education gap in Minnesota is near the worst in the U.S.

There was hopeful news: Companies still are motivated to come to Minnesota because of the quality of the workforce.

There were ideas on how to make the educational system work better:

• Start working with kids, especially from impoverished backgrounds, long before kindergarten.  (The achievement gap can start showing up as early as 18 months.)

• Make sure all third-graders are reading at grade level.

• Motivate adolescents to think about career options by middle school/junior high.

• Keep motivating high school students by talking to them about their career hopes and career opportunities.

• Offer ever-more college credits in high school.

• Get a grip on college tuition costs.

Most of the legislators were attentive. Some were even highly attentive.

Marquart was pleased.

“It’s time for Minnesota to think big again,” he said.

Shaping the education finance bill

But was this anything more than theoretical babble?

“What you heard tonight is going to be the basis of the education finance bill,” Marquart vowed.

Can a legislative body that can so easily get sidetracked into partisanship really take on big things?

Tom Stinson, the state’s economist, said there will be great rewards for those places that have a highly educated workforce.

“Unlike any time in history,” Stinson said, “labor and talent will be the scarce resource that all will be seeking.”

Stinson, and a number of other presenters, laid out the state’s future clearly to the legislators: Minnesota is going to need every single kid, from every single demographic, to be educated and motivated.

“This discussion can’t just end now,” said Marquart. “It has to be at the center of every committee meeting; it has to be going on in our communities across the state.”