During my five minutes in the spotlight at a jam-packed breakout panel during the governor's Job Summit last week, I got a little carried away in urging Gov. Mark Dayton to pull out all the stops in securing our reputation, once and for all, as the Brainpower State.
The governor, I suggested, ought to mobilize a huge movement to set a specific, end-of-decade goal for higher education attainment, and also ought to become "relentless" in using his bully pulpit to close the racial equity gap in our schools.
In a shameless effort to grab attention from a news media that once again seems obsessed by proposals for yet another pro sports stadium, I urged the governor to stage an event at Target Field, to announce a goal for post-secondary completion of 75 percent by the end of this decade, to do it with Blue Angels jets flying overhead and with a small army of CEOs, entrepreneurs and celebrities at his side, and to turn this holy cause into a "crusade."
Not everyone got quite as hyperbolic. But it was inspiring and instructive to hear most other voices during the day-long jobs summit say essentially the same thing: that the soundest strategy for job growth now and over the long haul rests on improving workforce quality, raising attainment levels, and drawing on untapped human potential in our disadvantaged populations.
That essential message came through in the presentation of Minnesota business leaders such as Bill George, an iconic guru of the Minnesota model of success, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic and now a Harvard Business School professor. The luncheon speaker, Michael Mandelbaum, co-author with Minnesota native Thomas Friedman of "That Used to be Us," one of the latest new books on how to revive our national economy, also hammered on the theme of investing hundreds of billions more in human potential and physical infrastructure and narrowing racial equity gaps.
And two of the most eloquent presentations of this cause came from the new dynamic duo that took the reins of our public higher education systems this summer, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.
Rosenstone brought passion to his vision of a MnSCU that would take risks in redesigning ways to deliver the education goods. And less than a week after the summit, MnSCU announced a new statewide outreach initiative called "Graduate Minnesota," with the subtitle "Complete your degree. Anytime. Anywhere." In launching the effort, Rosenstone said Minnesota "must leverage the talent of the state's 800,000 or so adults who have completed some college but have no degree. ... [We] can help them complete their degrees, compete for better jobs and deliver to Minnesota's employers the educated workers and professionals needed for our state to remain competitive." A toll-free number that will be answered seven days a week and a website (www.graduateminnesota.org) are part of the initiative.
Meanwhile, Kaler, the other featured luncheon speaker, hit the ball out of the park with a powerful speech, doing serious damage to the canard that government can't create private-sector jobs. He offered a simple response to the 700-plus attendees, in answer to his own question, "Where do jobs come from? And how do we create the jobs that Minnesota will need to succeed in the 21st century?"
"I'm not shy about answering these. Because the answer is the same: public higher education, our friends at MnSCU and the University of Minnesota. We deliver jobs for this state."
And then he proceeded to document precisely how, starting with the fact that 10 of the 13 companies displaying their wares in an "Innovation Hall" at the summit had their science developed by the U, or were awarded innovation honors or grants by the U, or were started or led by U grads.
Kaler, incidentally, comes from the hard science side of academia. He is a chemical engineer whose interests lie in the area of surfactant and colloid science, statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. He received his doctorate from the U in 1982.
An important motif for the day, and one that needs to become more dominant was the compelling need to improve achievement and attainment for communities of color in Minnesota, who now comprise more than one-fourth of our precious 5-year-olds. The simple fact is that we won't reach the 75 percent attainment rate we need by the end of this decade if our high schools continue to graduate far short of half of our Latino, African-American and American Indian youth.
"The Economics of Employment Inequality" was explored in an afternoon breakout session moderated by Sandra Vargas, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, who opened the session by reviewing some of the depressingly familiar statistics about Minnesota's unusually large racial disparities in unemployment, income, and educational achievement and attainment.
But Vargas and others on her panel managed to transform the discussion from the familiar "deficit model" to an imagining of potential and growth, with educational parity as the fuel. Bruce Corrie, dean of the College of Business and Organizational Leadership at Concordia University, displayed Minnesota maps showing in green the potential buying power of communities with high ethnic concentrations. Corrie estimates that already the combined enterprises of entrepreneurs and business owners in what he calls the ALANA communities, (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) equal the ninth largest employer in the state.
The Dayton administration has come out of the summit with the right synthesis of next steps. Two of the seven "very clear next steps" for job growth, outlined in a statement late last week, focus on education. One called for aligning our educational system with the jobs available now and most likely to be available in the future. And closing the achievement and employment gaps among minority and nonminority groups made the list, too.
But attainment and equity needs to be a bigger deal -- the most important thing. We already have solid blueprints in front of us on how to achieve it, one of the best being the "All Hands on Deck" document released earlier this year by the Governor's Workforce Development Council. The council operates under the astute leadership of Bryan Lindsley, who offered sound analysis in our breakout session on exactly how to achieve the attainment gains we need. Business interests played an important role in creating the recommendations, which predate the current administration.
That document lays out 16 general and specific recommendations, from setting goals and developing plans for increasing adult credential attainment to expanding a very promising FastTRAC initiative that helps low-wage workers upgrade their skills while earning a credential. And it may sound a little like hype, but "All Hands on Deck" is the right phrase and the right tone for making sure our good ship of state wins this battle and navigates the rough economic seas that lie ahead.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, November 3, 2011. Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.