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Workforce shortage ahead: Groups seek policy agenda to bridge urban, rural economic divide

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Kate Searls, Growth & Justice research director, presents information Thursday about the interdependence of the economies of rural and urban areas of the state. 1 / 3
Susan Brower2 / 3
Craig Helmstetter3 / 3

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY — Minnesota faces a serious workforce shortage as baby boomers retire.

"We are in the middle of some really big changes,'' said State Demographer Susan Brower.

She spoke Thursday at "Thriving by Design, Rural and Urban Together," a three-day conference at the Prairie's Edge Casino Resort co-hosted by OneMn.org and Growth & Justice.

Growth & Justice is a research and advocacy organization that advocates for a prosperous and fair economy for Minnesotans, according to its mission statement. OneMn.org is a nonpartisan, multi-ethnic coalition which works toward "shared sustainable prosperity for all Minnesotans," according to its statement of purpose.

On Friday, the final day of the conference, the attendees intend to develop an agenda to promote policies that work to bridge the rural and urban divide, as well as support economic and social equity in the state.

Demographic data presented Thursday by Brower, along with research by Growth & Justice and the American Public Radio Media Research Lab, makes clear the challenges.

Minnesota's population growth in recent years has been very urban-centric. Minnesota's population grew by 179,000 people in the last five years, with 88 percent of that occurring in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Other population growth in the state is also occurring in urban areas, whether that is in small cities such as Willmar or larger cities like Rochester.

The growth has one thing in common: "Where growth is happening, it's happening among people of color,'' Brower said.

The arrival of immigrants and higher birth rates among people of color is largely responsible for the growth in the state's urban areas, according to the data she presented.

Brower warned that a very tight labor market will only become more so as baby boomers leave the workforce in large numbers. The rate at which people turn age 65 and leave the workforce is about to triple from that of previous decades. The number of people age 65 and older will start to exceed the population of school age youth — ages 5 to 17 — in 2020.

The numbers suggest that communities most welcoming of immigrants and people of color will be best able to meet labor needs in the future. Yet research by American Public Media in its Ground Level Survey project found that attitudes in rural areas were less welcoming than those in urban areas, even though the growing labor shortage is likely to impact rural areas with declining populations the hardest.

Craig Helmstetter, who leads the American Public Media Research Lab, reported that the project surveyed Minnesotans on a wide variety of topics. It found that rural and urban residents as well as people of all ethnic backgrounds hold many shared values. A vast majority are hopeful for the future, and believe the state is on the right track in everything from protecting water to supporting education.

Where attitudes differ is on immigration, according to the survey. When asked if they feel the state is on the right track in terms of immigration, 73 percent of respondents in Minneapolis and St. Paul said yes, while only 36 percent in central Minnesota, 46 percent in southern Minnesota, and 39 percent in the St. Cloud urban area felt that way.

When it comes to economics, geographic boundaries aren't what they seem.

Kate Searls, Growth & Justice research director, outlined an economic analysis that found that the economies of rural and urban areas of the state are very interdependent.

And yet, attitudes in the state don't align with this reality. Audience member David Minge, former congressman and retired state Court of Appeals justice, pointed out that many rural residents believe that when the Legislature puts money in the Twin Cities, rural areas see no benefit. Conversely, they believe the Twin Cities see benefits when money is invested in rural areas. "Bitterness and resentment towards the Twin Cities'' flows from this perspective, he said.

Fellow audience member Paul Anderson, a retired state Supreme Court justice, has heard it. He said he has sat around the table with many farmers who have told him: "You suck all of the money out of the rich, black dirt of rural Minnesota and don't give anything back.''

Said Anderson: "I'm frustrated that I can't break through the myth. I can't break through the falsehood.''

While the economic destinies are linked, there are differences based on geography and ethnicity. Three metro counties have a median income of $85,000, based on 2016 data, while 24 rural counties have a median income of less than $50,000, according to Searls.

And, economic disparities continue between people of different races, according to Brower. Census data show that all ethnic groups have seen some improvements in recent years, but she said "big disparities remain'' in terms of poverty rates and other, social and economic indicators of well-being.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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