Disentangling disparities: Building our workforce

Letter to the editorIt is no secret that people of color, Black Minnesotans in particular, face barriers to economic parity with their White counterparts. I am grateful that Gov. Dayton and DFL legislators have been highlighting what we in our community have known for years: leaving these barriers in place holds back people of color and the true potential of Minnesota.

This is why I have been working diligently with my colleagues to develop and support a package of legislation that continues the work I have been championing since before I was elected to public office. To chip away at this multifaceted challenge requires strategies in a variety of areas: transportation, housing, education, healthcare, and business and workforce development. Much of the work of the legislature to date has focused on strategies in education, business, and workforce development opportunities.

A culturally appropriate, high-quality, and supportive school system is the key to giving children the chance to secure jobs and economic parity. Students of color need programs that identify and provide learning opportunities specific to their learning styles, needs, and areas of interest. Minnesota is near the bottom of student-to-counsellor ratios and has the worst achievement gap in the nation; this certainly is no coincidence. Increasing the number of school counsellors in our schools would help our students find a path to success and stay on it.

Teachers are often better equipped to help students break down barriers that they themselves have overcome. To increase the diversity of our teaching workforce, I support programs like Collaborative Urban Educators (CUE), which partners with students of underrepresented communities to help them secure a teaching degree. This program is available at several respected higher education institutions and provides support and resources for diverse students.

Minnesotans without a high school degree or the equivalent have limited employment prospects and earnings potential; very few occupations available to non-degree holders pay a wage sufficient to support a family outside of poverty.

This is why I support Adult Basic Education (ABE), which helps learners who were not able to achieve their degree find an equivalent path. ABE programs focus on meeting the critical economic and workforce challenges Minnesota is about to face by increasing workforce adaptability, innovation, and new literacy. GED and adult diploma classes, ESL, family literacy, basic skills enhancement, distance learning, and many other “soft skills” lead to stronger workforce, college, and postsecondary preparation.

Work experience and skills development are key to helping young workers of color move past dead-end jobs. The STEP-UP program ran by the City of Minneapolis connects 14-21 year olds with training and work experience over the summer. This program has helped hundreds of students get real-world experience, and I’ll work with my colleagues to support programs like this across the state.

In helping workers get jobs that pay a living wage, I am excited about the successes MSPWin (Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Workforce Innovation Network) has seen in advocating for the Pathways for Prosperity Initiative, which provides grants to organizations that work with low-income adults to make training available for careers in high-demand industries.

Another approach has come from the Emerging Workforce Coalition, which has proposed a similar partnering program that helps workers achieve their full potential by providing skills development training and connecting trained workers to industries in need of trained workers. Full implementation of this program by the Department of Employment and Economic Development could help thousands of low-skill workers advance out of dead-end jobs.

Another pathway out of poverty comes when we support local economies. We know when a person starts a business they are more likely to hire workers that share their lived experience. The Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) supports the revitalization and development of small businesses by providing access to capital, access to market opportunities and networks, and access to a toolbox of support for business. This is the kind of network and support that we need across Minnesota to bring business and job opportunities to people of color.

One such organization working in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota is the African Development Center (ADC), which provides culturally unique resources to workers and families in the Minneapolis, Rochester, and Willmar areas. The ADC provides services to help improve credit scores, make informed major financial decisions like buying a home, and develop businesses.

These programs and organizations are just a sample of those doing the hard work of breaking down barriers for people of color. It is exciting to know that there are innovative and successful programs that are helping people of color out of the cycle of poverty: we must capitalize on this moment by lending our support to help them expand.

Minnesota’s economy is at a crossroads, and if we do not confront the multifaceted challenges of racial and economic disparities, the health of our economy will be threatened and people of color will fall further behind. I call on my colleagues and constituents to continue the fight to address these unconscionable and persistent disparities so we can build a better Minnesota for all of us.


Jeff Hayden is a Minnesota DFL Senator for District 62.