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Investing In Job Training Paying Off For Minneapolis

Investing In Job Training Paying Off For Minneapolis

Steve Brandt | Minneapolis Star Tribune via YellowBrix

October 07, 2009

As he coasts toward probable reelection, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak can boast of something that hasn’t happened since at least 1990: parity between the unemployment rates of the city and the seven-county metro.

Both averaged 5.1 percent last year, after several years of a steadily narrowing gap. The 13-county metropolitan unemployment rate was 5.2 percent.

Although there’s no way to determine cause and effect, the gap started to close around the time Rybak began in his first term to beef up the city’s investments in job placement and training.

Starting in 2004, his budgets diverted an extra $6.2 million in city-controlled spending to such programs, most of it from selling the city’s stake in the downtown Minneapolis Hilton hotel.

“From the moment I walked in here, we were going to be focused on jobs,” Rybak said in an interview. He said efforts included cultivating partners that responded to his goal of closing the gap, which was more than half a percentage point as recently as 2004.

Accountant Ken Jackson found work in July with help from East Side Neighborhood Services, a placement agency the city uses. Job counselor Roberto Martinez “was very hands-on with me,” Jackson said, setting him up with everything from a bus pass to the right clothing to a voice mailbox. Jackson also got tips on improving his resume and interviewing skills.

“I must have interviewed 25, 30 times,” Jackson said. Finally he landed a job at Quayside Publishing Group in downtown Minneapolis.

Jackson was one of the faces behind the unemployment rate, which is calculated by the state under federal directives, using increasingly dated 2000 census numbers and jobless claims by city of residence.

Analysts are cautious about attributing too much importance to city-level figures, noting that they can change monthly in relation to metro figures.

But there’s a consistent annual trend in Minneapolis of a gap reduction not seen in St. Paul. “It really is unusual,” said Patricia Brady, executive director of Workforce Solutions, which runs Ramsey County jobs programs. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 18 of the 50 largest cities had 2008 unemployment rates below those of their metro census areas.

Goes beyond tradition

Minneapolis’ effort moves beyond the usual government job training and placement roles. First, it uses a network of neighborhood and ethnic-focused nonprofit agencies to help low-income job seekers get training. Second, it also focuses on job preparation and experience for teens.

Third, it links city financial assistance on development projects to commitments to hire Minneapolis residents and use minority and female workers or companies.

Rybak’s efforts began after the 2000 census exposed something disturbing: The Twin Cities metro area ranked second among major metro areas nationally in the width of the poverty gap, with poverty in Minneapolis and St. Paul more than 4.5 times that of the rest of the region.

Some veterans in the jobs field, such as Mike Brinda, say that the national economy has the largest single influence on the Minneapolis employment picture. Brinda, now retired, ran the Neighborhood Employment Network as an intermediary between the city and employment nonprofits. He said the 10,000 city-backed job placements claimed by the Rybak administration have particularly helped hard-to employ, low-income workers.

Seeking effective partnerships

Brinda praises Rybak for understanding that placement efforts made more sense under the wing of city economic development programs rather than the city’s health department, where they resided under former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Rybak said bringing the Minneapolis Employment and Training Program under his new Department of Community Planning and Economic Development allowed the city to better shape job training efforts for growth sectors such as healthcare and energy efficiency.

Another key decision by the city helped replenish its jobs spending, Brinda said. The city worked with Hennepin County to help people on food stamps find jobs, which meant that placement costs could be federally reimbursed.

Rybak also pushed for intensified work and career preparation in schools, partnering with the Minneapolis school district and the nonprofit fundraising arm Achieve!Minneapolis. Achieve has raised money for privately financed career and college centers, and Rybak speaks annually to high school freshmen about using the centers.

The city also aggressively promoted public-private summer job opportunities for youths and public college programs that help high school grads afford more education.

Carolyn Roby, chair of the council of Minneapolis employers, calls Rybak’s approach holistic because it encourages teens to follow job pathways into adulthood.

The city’s strategy also includes voluntary job-link agreements with businesses to hire Minneapolis residents. Through these, 1,972 residents were hired in 2008, more than two-thirds of them getting at least the “living wage” of $13.25, or 130 percent of the federal poverty rate.

Some businesses pledged to create one full-time living wage job for every $25,000 in city job-creation subsidies, or else pay back the subsidy.

When times get tough, not even these efforts can stop rising unemployment. But the Minneapolis jobless rate, now almost 8 percent, still has stayed below the seven-county metro rate in five of the first eight months of this year.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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