Rudy Perpich, Minnesota’s venerable governor in the ‘70s and ‘80s, once said that all his political campaigns revolved around three themes: Jobs. Jobs. And Jobs. A lot of observers at the time thought his attitude reflected his Iron Range roots, a place where the then-collapsing mining economy separated a lot of his friends and neighbors from well-paying jobs and into long-term unemployment.
But other folks—me among them—understood his philosophy for its brilliant, non-partisan simplicity. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs united communities, policymakers and political organizations around a tangible and achievable goal. To some, a robust job market signified a healthy economy; job creators are profit-makers. To others, more and better jobs represented a universal elixir that remedied a wide variety of social and cultural ills. Those politicos used to say that the best family policy is a job, the best health care policy is a job, the best education policy is a job, and on and on.
“Jobs” will and should remain a frontline political issue in upcoming elections, but its underlying substructure will have to change dramatically. Let me use our annual State of Manufacturing® survey to tell you what I mean. Enterprise Minnesota annually retains a nationally prominent pollster to survey executives at small and medium-sized manufacturing companies across Minnesota about the most pressing challenges and opportunities in their industry. In most of the 10 years that we’ve conducted the poll, manufacturers sounded ever-louder alarms about how the unavailability of skilled workers was impeding their ability to grow profitability. But the results of our most recent survey show how the skills gap has devolved into a “warm body” gap.
And that problem is getting worse.
After politicians have finished celebrating how their policies have dramatically reduced the rates of unemployment, they will be faced with the reality (probably unacknowledged) that their policies had little to do with it. The rate of unemployment is being reduced by demographics, and it is far from a good thing. Baby Boomers are retiring and there are not enough young people to replace them in the workforce. The end result of this could be disastrous. RealTime Talent, a workforce organization that operates out of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, has predicted that the number of unfilled jobs in Minnesota could increase from 60,000 to maybe more than 200,000 by 2022. The result, they say, could erase $33 billion from the state’s GDP and cost individual citizens $12 billion in lost wages. And the state would lose more than $2 billion in tax revenues.
Trust me on this: The new spin on the Perpich political mantra must become Employees. Employees. Employees.
And if candidates are smart (and responsible), they will infuse their campaigns with ideas that encompass issues that manufacturers have been telling us for a decade. Such as:
We need to rethink the future of work. Public policies must embrace the fact that young people can launch lucrative, enriching, life-long careers without having to bear the crushing financial burden accompanying the receipt of a four-year diploma.
We need to rethink education. College should remain a hallowed American institution, but we need to dispel the notion among educators, guidance counselors and parents that a B.A. or a B.S. is the exclusive pathway to a successful, meaningful life. Does everyone need a four-year degree? (Ask your barista.) Policymakers should help elevate the cultural prestige of technical degrees and work with post-secondary educational institutions to ensure their curriculum correlates with what employers need.
And we need to rethink the workplace. Artificial intelligence and robotics are not weapons in a diabolical effort by miserly manufacturers to cheat people out of jobs. Their use will be increasingly essential to almost every manufacturing operation, large or small. One could argue, in fact, the companies that don’t deploy these technological developments are the ones cheating their employees, because they won’t be able to compete.
The economic future will be brightest in states whose policymakers understand the new reality is there will be more jobs than people to fill them. Very likely, a lot more jobs than people. Politicians, business executives and educators need to collaborate to ensure the remaining jobs will be more remunerative and satisfying than ever. What’s more, we need to inspire and educate young people to take over those positions. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs will always be an important cultural “elixir,” but responsible policymakers will need to transcend cheap political rhetoric and show substantive leadership now, not later.
Lynn Shelton is vice president of marketing at Enterprise Minnesota