June 11, 2018 | By Alexander Hitch, Rob Paral

Workforce Development and Immigrants: The View from Minneapolis

Following the Chicago Council’s recent roundtable in Detroit, key stakeholders convened in Minneapolis to discuss the Council’s Ready to Work report and how the foreign-born are incorporated into workforce development plans in Minnesota. The greater Twin Cities region possesses a dynamic economy and is also home to a unique blend of immigrant and refugee populations. Indeed, metro Minneapolis-St. Paul has one of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents in the Midwest.[1] This only underscores the pressing need to intentionally develop pathways to integrate immigrant communities into both the workforce and the social fabric of Minnesota.

Several key themes emerged at the Minneapolis roundtable:

  1. Although two-thirds of job openings in Minnesota require only rudimentary skills, businesses face difficulty in attracting native-born workers.[2] Without higher numbers of immigrants to fill these positions, certain industries risk severe labor shortages. Chambers of Commerce, trade associations, and private industry must highlight the need for immigrant workers and advocate for federal immigration reforms that address employer needs.
  2. Although the challenges are clear, Minneapolis-St. Paul needs to develop a more effective strategy of matching its many foreign-born communities to businesses with labor demands. Workforce development plans to integrate communities should share best practices and successes from across the state. This is of particular importance regarding the large number of refugee populations who face fewer employment barriers but grapple with other challenges.
  3. In addition to integrating immigrants into the future Minneapolis-St. Paul workforce, efforts must also prioritize the need for foreign-born populations to feel accepted and welcomed into the cultural and social fabric of Minnesota. Working to build a set of inclusionary initiatives will ensure that the foreign-born community of Minnesota is a part of the state’s future, both economically and culturally.
     

Chambers of Commerce, Trade Associations, and Private Industry Must Continue to Advocate for Reforms

Although attracting high-skilled talent is essential for any burgeoning economy, much of the focus in Minnesota today is geared toward filling unmet labor demands for low-skilled positions. Nearly two-thirds of open positions in Minnesota require only basic skills of new hires and businesses rely heavily on immigrant workers to fill positions often overlooked by the native-born. Concurrent to this development is the declining overall share of the native-born workforce, which ensures that private industry must continue to rely on immigrant labor into the future. However, because immigrants working in lower-skill jobs are more likely to be undocumented, businesses seeking to avoid politicized issues hesitate to advocate too loudly for fixes to the immigration system, often relying on trade associations for political lobbying and advocacy.[3]

It is vital that private industry, local Chambers of Commerce, and trade associations continue to highlight the absolute necessity of immigrant workers across the state. Organizations affiliated with the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition have laid the groundwork, penning a joint statement on the importance of immigrants to the economy. Nevertheless, building upon current advocacy efforts for changes to federal immigration policy will help ensure that labor shortages will not inhibit the growth of the Minnesota economy.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Must Develop an Effective Strategy Across the Region and State

To better integrate immigrants into Minnesota’s economy, it is important to demonstrate how immigrants already contribute to the state and local workforce. Without positive net migration from immigrants, Minnesota’s population is expected to be in decline by 2043, making the economic future of the state continuously more dependent on the foreign-born workforce as Minnesota reaches mid-century. Properly conveying the necessary and positive effects of the immigrant population to the state’s economic and demographic future must be considered paramount.

A large portion of Minnesota’s foreign-born population is made up of refugees, a characteristic unique to the region. Because this population is more likely to be younger, have their immigrant status settled, and already educated in their home country, Minnesota must work to leverage the skills and education this group holds.[4] Connecting their abilities to labor shortages statewide could ensure that Minnesota does not squander its advantage vis-à-vis other Midwestern states.

Comparing the efforts and best practices of business and municipalities can elevate the programs that are most effective and lead to adoption across the region and state. For instance, with the potential implementation of a city ID card in Minneapolis, greater participation by undocumented populations in open society may become more possible. While businesses are skeptical of this municipal initiative and would prefer, for example, a coordinated statewide effort to provide a driving credential for unauthorized immigrants, if either of these programs are successful, they could lead to positive employment and cultural spillovers in communities statewide.

Minnesota Must Address Immigrant Integration Holistically

Foreign-born communities are not only the future drivers of Minnesota’s economy, but also bring unique traditions and histories that contribute to Minnesota’s culture. It is imperative that immigrants are not perceived simply as tools for the future economic vitality of Minnesota, but also as important contributors in all facets of the state’s social and cultural fabric.

And Minnesota is not unaccustomed to a large foreign-born population. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Minnesota was home to many immigrant communities from northern Europe. The state’s culture now bears the imprints of that wave of immigration.

Local government and private organization should provide opportunities for greater interfacing between and among different ethnicities and cultures within the state. Many groups are working to break down social barriers through local cultural programs in school gyms, churches, Rotary clubs, and established events such as the Festival of Nations and the Hmongtown Marketplace, among numerous other initiatives. But these efforts must be bolstered, and politicians must support these actions of communities by pushing for inclusivity at the state and federal level.

The Twin Cities region is thriving, with a growing economy and burgeoning population growth. But these successes mask underlying challenges that must be addressed to ensure Minnesota does not squander its advantage. Firstly, Chambers of Commerce, businesses, and trade associations must all continue to advocate for reforms to the immigration system, while also coordinating a state-wide strategy that shares best practices of specific industries and communities. This must coincide with initiatives that ensure Minnesota integrates immigrant communities not only in workforce development, but also into the cultural quilt of an historically welcoming state.

Special thanks to Sandy Vargas of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for collaborating on the roundtable, and to all the attendees for contributing their insights and expertise.

This piece is part two of a three-part series on the Chicago Council’s roundtable discussions throughout the Midwest. These discussions, held in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, were generously supported by the Lumina Foundation, and aimed to understand how workforce development strategies in Midwestern metro regions incorporate the unique characteristics and contributions of immigrant workers.

 

[1] US Census. ACS 2016 5-Year Estimates.

[2] Minnesota Chamber of Commerce “Grow Minnesota!” business visits (approximately 700 annually).

[3] Ready to Work, p. 15.

[4] Ready to Work, pp. 41, 43.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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