Senator Tony Lourey: We Need to Talk About Minnesota’s Aging, Shrinking Workforce

It’s extremely difficult to predict the future. Will this summer be beautiful? Will we be rocked with snowstorms and blizzards again next winter? On a more serious note, we also don’t know how our state’s economy will take shape. Will agriculture, biotechnology, and mining continue to be economic powerhouses? Will other industries make a comeback? We can’t be sure.

But there is one thing we know: Minnesota’s workforce is aging. In the span of 15 years, from 2015 to 2030, the number of Minnesotans age 65 or older is expected to jump from about 753,529 to more than 1.2 million. If current population trends continue, those 1.2 million people over age 65 will account for 1 in 5 state residents.

That simple statistic has profound implications because older Minnesotans, like older Americans everywhere, are less likely to work. And companies — no matter the industry — need workers to get things built and keep our economy vibrant.

This is such an important issue for our state that I’ve joined a group of legislators, economists, business leaders, and citizens to explore the topic. I’m glad to be collaborating with several of my Republican legislative colleagues on this project called “Courageous Conversations: Minnesota’s Aging Workforce.” This nonpartisan effort is organized by the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The folks at the Humphrey School are sponsoring six conversations around the state on the topic.

The first conversation occurred last year in Minneapolis. A second one happened in Marshall a couple of months ago. The next one is scheduled in our backyard. We’ll be meeting at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Minnesota Discovery Center, 1005 Discovery Drive, Chisholm. I invite you to join us because we want to hear from everyone.

Why is this important to our area?

In 2010, the number of construction jobs in the seven-county Arrowhead Region hit a recession-era low of 5,616. It was a big, big drop from previous years. But things have perked up since then. The region has added back nearly all of those lost jobs in the industry, thanks to the construction of an 11-story office building in downtown Duluth, a school in Mountain Iron, and other projects.

That’s really good news, in part because construction jobs pay well: Wages average nearly $56,000 annually, which is about $14,000 more than other jobs in the region. However, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development warns that a tight labor market and an aging workforce may present new barriers to future growth.

In other words, healthy industries depend on a talented and abundant workforce. Without such a workforce, employers are tempted to relocate plants and offices elsewhere. That could be a city in the southern United States or maybe along one of our nation’s coasts. To stay competitive, we need to figure out a way to attract new people to Minnesota and entice a lot of middle-aged folks to keep working a little longer than we’ve come to expect.

Some experts refer to older workers as a “demographic dividend” that could benefit society if they’re enticed to keep punching a time clock. But hurdles remain, including age discrimination, a lack of training opportunities, and rigid work schedules that prevent older workers from taking time off to travel or visit grandkids.

Those are just some of the things we’ll discuss in a nonpartisan setting tomorrow in Chisholm. Join us to share your story — and let’s find a way to keep Northeastern Minnesota a vibrant place to live for generations to come.

 

This commentary was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune.

Senator Tony Lourey
Tony Lourey represents District 11, which includes portions of Carlton, Kanabec, Pine and St. Louis counties in the northeastern part of the state.

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