Tapping Into Greater Minnesota’s Can-Do Attitude

This column by American Experiment Chairman Ron Eibensteiner appeared in the Grand Rapids Herald Review.

All the political talk about “Two Minnesotas” in this past campaign season inspired me to think long and hard about what exactly that means—and what we at the Center can do about it. To me, the first Minnesota consists of a political aristocracy, mostly urban, totally liberal, a political nobility composed of unionists, academics, social engineers and media whose attitude about governance can be summed up in three words: “We know better. Forget the real-world costs of coping with our lofty policies.”

The other Minnesota is, well, the rest of us, who have to cope with the real-world costs of living with their lofty policies. The people in Greater Minnesota are especially lost between these increasingly dissimilar political groups. The urban orientation of government is keeping us from hearing valuable input.

A couple of years ago, while I was co-authoring a chapter on job creation in American Experiment’s Minnesota Policy Blueprint, I developed an interest in how the impending skills gap might disrupt Minnesota’s economy. So, a few of us drove north on I-94 for town meetings in Alexandria and Fergus Falls to learn how these forward-looking communities were collaborating to ensure their manufacturers would find enough skilled labor to sustain their local economies.

The trip became a plot-point experience. On the one hand, we collected real-world feedback about the potential impact of the impending worker shortage and what could be done to combat it; on the other hand, we learned how personal input from local leaders could enrich the applicability of our policy recommendations.

At the time, the skills gap had not yet developed into the full-blown crisis that economists now anticipate, but the seeds were sprouting. Large numbers of Baby Boomers were suddenly starting to retire, taking with them generations of informal institutional knowledge. For their part, educators were doing little to help fill that gap. Teachers, counselors, and administrators continued to advise high school students (and their parents) that a challenging, well-paying career could be achieved exclusively through a four-year college degree. Anything less would be settling for second best. Complicating the situation were demographic projections: The rising generation of potential employees—Gen Z—just didn’t have enough people to neutralize the number of retiring Boomers. And even if they did, they didn’t have the interest.

The folks in Alexandria helped us convene a roundtable to explain how they were confronting this challenge. We learned how the local business community, led by manufacturers, organized a coalition of educators, business activists, and parents to plan out financing a massive manufacturing center that would be located in Alexandria’s new high-tech high school. The facility would include state-of-the-art machinery donated by local manufacturers, who also volunteered their employees to help show students how to operate it. Coalition members showed us how their high-visibility, city-wide campaign would showcase the kinds of challenging, satisfying, and well-paid career opportunities available in modern manufacturing. It reminded Alexandrians manufacturers were essential to the prosperity of their local economy and that their ongoing success depended on an adequate pool of well-trained employees.

Parents got the message.

As they did in Fergus Falls, where a similar initiative renovated and equipped a manufacturing center in their district’s well-established high school. Most memorable in Fergus Falls was how more than 60 locals jammed into a meeting room at the school, eager to tell us how they endorsed the project and shared in the responsibilities of pulling it off.

These two meetings helped inspire a couple programs at Center of the American Experiment that are enjoying great success. One, Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree, is our attempt to seek out and implement relevant market-based solutions to the skills gap statewide.

Our visits to Alexandria and Fergus Falls also inspired us to create American Experiment’s Greater Minnesota Advisory Board, a personal favorite of mine. By convening meetings with conservative thought leaders statewide, we hope to infuse better insights and greater relevance to our sphere of policy and public affairs by reclaiming the lost art of listening.

Why Greater Minnesota? Two reasons. First, we think the growing urban orientation of our policymakers in St. Paul shortchanges Minnesotans who choose to live outside our metropolitan areas. Our state as a whole deserves representation that transcends the influence of simple population density. I personally intend to reach out to Advisory members for examples of these disparities, what they mean, and what we can do about them.

Second, our attraction to Greater Minnesota is based in part on the legacy of the “farm kid” economy. Many manufacturing executives have told me the ideal employee exhibits the traits of a farm kid: They show up. They listen. They don’t know the meaning of a sick day. And when something breaks, they fix it. As a former farm kid, I never tire of hearing this. And I know first-hand how this kind of “can-do” personal responsibility represents the mindset of community leaders all across Greater Minnesota. We witnessed it in Alexandria and Fergus Falls as we listened to people describe market-based, locally organized solutions to a potential problem. Neither group started by reaching out to the government for recommendations, guidance, or funding. When something breaks, they fix it.

We (all) need to tap into that wisdom.