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How ‘Minnesota nice’ could become a serious economic problem for the Twin Cities

Courtesy of Make It. MSP.
Peter Frosch, vice president of strategic partnerships at Greater MSP, speaking at a conference earlier this week.

Business leaders in the Twin Cities are worried about a number: 100,000.

That’s how many jobs will go unfilled by 2020 if current demographic trends don’t change. The problem is such a threat that the region’s business leaders created an organization — Make It. MSP. — that’s tasked with resolving it.

The response they’ve come up with: do a better job of recruiting people to move to the region — and then do a better job of keeping them here once they arrive. That includes everything from helping newcomers make the transition, especially in making social connections, and making special efforts to retaining people of color who report having an especially hard time feeling welcome and valued.

It also involves hats.

At a conference earlier this week, Peter Frosch, the vice president of the regional economic development organization Greater MSP, said the mission is to build an atmosphere, “so that innovative, talented and ambitious people can come here and stay and thrive regardless of their background.

“When I talk about people, I’m talking about people who are young, people who are new here, people from diverse backgrounds and people with the skills our employers need most,” Frosch said.

But the region has work to do, and the challenges are different for white workers than they are for people of color. For white job recruits, the region is doing well at retaining them, but not so well at recruiting them in the first place. Based on an analysis performed by Myles Shaver at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, the Twin Cities is first in retaining those with a bachelor’s degree or higher among the nation’s 25 largest regions.

But it is 19th in bringing them in. For example, 3.3 percent of the working population of the region — more than 73,000 people — arrived in 2015. That’s behind the percentage of newcomers as share of population in places like Portland, Denver and Seattle, which was above 5 percent. “People who are here tend to stay here,” Frosch told those gathered at the Guthrie Theater Monday. “But we see relative low rates of attraction from other states as we look at faster growing parts of the country.”

Keeping professionals of color

For people of color, the problem is the opposite. The region has done pretty well at persuading professionals of color to take a chance on the Twin Cities, with surveys showing such professionals more likely to consider a move to the region.

But the Twin Cities is No. 14 of the 25 largest cities at retaining those same people once they arrive (it does better among people of color who have children). In fact, a survey of professionals of color showed that 60 percent are considering leaving in the next three-to-five years. “We see a continued failure to include people of color in employment and educational opportunities, despite the fact that these are the fastest growing parts of our population,” Frosch said.

Tasha Byers
Courtesy of Make It. MSP.
Tasha Byers

At the conference, Tasha Byers, who leads the professionals of color retention team at Make It. MSP., used a rescue beacon worn by firefighters to issue what she called a “heightened alert.”

“We have professionals of color here who are struggling … we’re struggling to belong,” she said. “And we must hear the alert.”

Based on a survey and focus groups of 1,200 people of color, many feel that diversity and their cultures aren’t valued, they “feel they don’t feel welcome or belong in certain spaces or venues” and that diversity and inclusion aren’t valued by employers, Byers said.

Shawntera Hardy, the commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the state has record numbers of job openings with low unemployment. Not everyone is sharing in the prosperity, however, with some population subgroups having jobless rates nearly 25 percent. “We have a number of Minnesotans sitting on the economic sidelines,” Hardy said. And too many don’t have access to the loans that are needed to start and grow a business. She complimented Make It. MSP. for spending its first year in existence asking people what they think and listening to the answers.

We’re hiring

At the same time, finding employees for high-skilled jobs is becoming more competitive, said Christa Nelson, senior recruiter for Health Partners. As recently as 2009, the pool of candidates was deep; nearly everyone offered a job accepted one, and most jobs were filled within the region, she said.

But the acceleration of baby boomer retirements and a decline in natural population growth means the region needs to import more people, both domestically and internationally.

Shawntera Hardy
Courtesy of Make It. MSP.
Shawntera Hardy

Nelson said Health Partners is casting a wider net and having to relocate workers from elsewhere, something that rarely happened in the past. That means the company is having to fill in job candidates on what it is like to live and work in the region.

Make It. MSP. created a website that companies can point job candidates to and built what it calls the recruiter toolkit — with information, photos and videos — that recruiters can use to tailor their pitches. The organization also surveyed 1,800 people who lived in 20 different areas to gauge their perceptions to recruiters could address negative images. “Did they view us as anything more than a place that’s a frozen tundra for six months of the year or the place where Mall of America stands?” she asked.

Those images did come up, she said. But so did knowledge of the number of Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in the region. “How can we use that data to help them to see how great it is to work here,” Nelson said.

Hats and hellos

The transition from newcomer to established resident is difficult enough that businesses have been created to help. Melanie Allen formed a company, Welcome Matters, that contracts with companies to help their new hires with simple tasks, like deciding where to live, as well as more complex ones, such as how and where to make friends. “There’s nothing more frustrating than being boots on the ground and not knowing which way to turn,” Allen said.

Moira Grosbard, meanwhile, created Network Careers specifically to work with “trailing spouses.” “You bring someone here for a job but the partner isn’t as excited,” Grosbard said. “It isn’t what they wanted to do, so often, at the end of the day, your corporate new hire is going home to someone who really just wants to leave.”

Grosbard and Allen ran focus groups among newcomers and found another vulnerable group: singles. “If they haven’t grown up here, if they don’t have family, they have no connections to the region, really the workplace is the only way they can get to know people,” Grosbard said. And while big companies have programs to help employees meet others and engage in off-work activities, medium and small workplaces can’t afford such help.

Ashley Hanson
Courtesy of Make It. MSP.
Ashley Hanson is a producer of St. Paul Hello, an effort founded by artist Jun-Li Wang to give newcomers to the city warm hats.

Danielle Steer, who moved to the region from the San Francisco Bay area, is one of the leaders of Make It. MSP’s efforts toward social inclusion. They set a goal of connecting with 10,000 newcomers, something done via informal events like “Break The Bubble,” which are social meet ups around the region; “Newcomer Nosh,” which involves that elusive dinner invitation; and “Minnesota Nice Breakers,” a group that attends already scheduled events and seeks out newcomers. They also asked 800 newcomers to respond to a survey about their experiences.

“The majority said that personal and social connections were important concerns for them before they moved here and once they got here,” said Steer who is manager at Impact Hub MSP. That could be family, friends, coworkers or other “peer-to-peer” contacts.

The biggest challenges face those who arrive with no social connections, she said. “Those people have various challenges in assimilating because it can be a bit more difficult to break into social networks here,” Steer said. Many respondents said they were satisfied with the region’s quality of life, but dissatisfied with their personal lives. “That’s dangerous when you think about the future health and wealth of the economy and the different organizations that are part of this,” she said.

Making newcomers feel welcome can be as simple as a warm hat, said Ashley Hanson, who works with St. Paul Hello, an idea started by St. Paul artist Jun-Li Wang after she realized how a good hat makes winters easier.

The biggest cheers of the summit came when Hanson announced that the program of inviting newcomers to ceremonies and presenting them with winter “Welcome Hats” would expand: St. Paul Hello will become MSP Hello.

“This is about all of us becoming more radically welcoming,” Hanson said. “Anyone wearing one of these hats, they are new to Minnesota. Please say hello to them.”

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Robert Hanson on 10/12/2016 - 02:06 pm.

    Excellent Idea on the Social Meetups

    I moved to Minnesota several years ago from the SF Bay Area and I agree with the part that the social situation can be difficult compared to elsewhere. I have made many friends, but almost all are from outside of Minnesota and their circles also have few Minnesota natives.

    So, kudo’s to the folks working on this issue and I hope that you are able to make great progress!

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/12/2016 - 04:40 pm.

    Looking for examples

    Minnesota is the US equivalent of a Nordic country, as our Scandinavian ancestors seem to have st the tone on the place – as emotionally cool as our climate, We might want to compare notes with the Nordic countries to determine whether they are doing any better attracting, embracing and retaining highly educated immigrants from other European countries as well as their significant refugee populations. Or if we want to use a closer example, look North to Canada, which has metropolitan areas that are in many ways similar to the Twin Cities.

    I’m inclined to think that a program, no matter how wonderful, won’t fix this issue. Instead, it takes all of us upping out game. Might we we want to get less aloof and more human? Maybe we should start with our start with our children – teaching them to be welcoming to their peers “who aren’t from here,” as they weren’t born with our learned limitations.

    Maybe what we need is hug training combined with teaching the cultural literacy about how other people from other places want to be treated. It isn’t exactly the golden rule – but more like do unto others as they would prefer you do unto them. Our style may be arms length, but we don’t have to be that way. As with technology, once our children learn, maybe they can teach their elders who were schooled in being nice to strangers, but not inclined to make them our friends. What we have to gain goes way beyond filling all our jobs..

  3. Submitted by Garrett Peterson on 10/13/2016 - 09:27 am.

    Pay more

    I hate all the hand-wringing about labor shortages. Businesses might not want to hear this, but the easiest way to solve their “workforce shortage” and retention problems is by paying higher salaries. If they start boosting salaries, at a certain point it will lure people to the region, and many will stay.

    Supply and demand. If the supply of workers is low, you’ll have to pay more to get the workers you want.

  4. Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 10/13/2016 - 11:04 am.

    Why grow?

    Is growth automatically good?
    I’ve been to the cities mentioned and I don’t want to live there. Maybe enough people are here already.
    More people more cars more traffic more rent increases more pollution more…you get the drift.
    Perhaps more effort should go to those already here so that they can fill those jobs.

  5. Submitted by Toni Johnson on 10/17/2016 - 11:54 am.

    Minnesota can be “COLD”…

    Minnesota “nice” to me is an insult to people all over the world who are truly nice. I have lived in the US for almost 30 years and for the past 4 years I have lived in the city of Lakeville. Unfortunately I did not know much amount this city when I moved it. I found a beautiful house for my family and bam mortgage signed and a new home. It is super sad to tell you that I came to find out a few months after I moved to Lakeville that I have moved to one of the RACISTS cities south of the river. Yes the couple who told me this were whites and good friends from church. Believe it or not, but only one of our neighbors speaks to us and our children. It was and is still a huge shock to see that some Minnesotans can be so mean spirited to a new neighbor. (People can pretend but you know its true) I love my house but hate my city and can’t wait to move out to a city where my family and I are welcomed. This goes for work places. I have worked in financial institutions like (TCF Bank, Wells Fargo, US Bank) here in Minnesota they go to a great length to keep people of color down. No inclusion, no promotion and very secretive management style so you don’t know what they are doing. It is sadly deeply rooted in a very COLD culture. You can recruit these workers but when they don’t feel at home and not welcomed by their co workers and neighbors; they leave. Those of us who stay because of our children do encourage our children to go to college outside of Minnesota because even the ones (minorities) who graduate here are not given the same opportunity to excel as their white friend and classmates so why bother. Thanks to those who are now bringing this to the lime light and hopefully make a difference. People of color are crying out for your support. Let’s start from looking within…

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