New Humphrey School Report Explores the Challenges of Minnesota’s Aging Workforce

Courageous Conversations Project concludes with public forum featuring NYT's Tom Friedman
September 25, 2019
Panelists at the Courageous Conversations public forum on Sept. 23, 2019
Panelists at the Courageous Conversations final public forum on Sept. 23, 2019. Photo: Bruce Silcox

Minnesota’s workforce is reaching a crisis point. Aging workers of the baby boomer generation are retiring in great numbers, and young people and new immigrants are not able to fill the gaps they leave behind. This could bring about potentially seismic impacts on Minnesota’s businesses, industries, and overall economic health. 

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Courageous Conversations Project took a close look at this issue over the past two years, conducting public forums in communities across the state to explore how Minnesota's aging workforce is affecting their local economies and vitality. 

The final report from the citizens commission overseeing the project, released this week,  recommends that businesses and communities work together to develop strategies attuned to each region’s economy and demographics. 

The Job Market Has Changed

The key word is flexibility, project leaders emphasized at a public forum Monday at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Many baby boomers are staying on the job longer and delaying retirement, but may also want to cut back from a full-time work schedule so they can help with family obligations or volunteer in their communities.

“Employers have to be nimble to react to the needs of older workers,” said Tom Quackenbush, manager of the Daktronics plant in Redwood Falls. “You can’t just expect workers to adapt to your needs anymore.” 

“The job market has changed so much in the past few decades,” said panelist Michelle Ufford, a lifelong Iron Ranger who runs the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training and Northeast Workforce Development Board. “We need to develop a more systematic approach to educating employers across Minnesota on how to reach older workers, and we also need to help older job seekers find these opportunities.”

One example Ufford pointed to is the fact that most job openings are now posted online, rather than in local newspapers. She also suggests employers revise their job requirements to avoid screening out potential candidates. For example, does the person really need a driver’s license or a college degree to perform a particular job?

Key Recommendations:

  • Offer more flexible employment options for older workers (ie: part time, job sharing, working from home)
  • Provide more job training and retraining
  • Improve communication with older workers to respond to their priorities more effectively
  • Refine hiring practices to more effectively recruit older workers 
  • Identify jobs that are a good fit for their skills and lifestyles
  • Acknowledge regional differences in the workforce needs  

The public forums in Austin, Chisholm, Marshall, Minneapolis, and Thief River Falls reinforced the economic diversity of Minnesota’s urban and rural areas, and made clear there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenges of the aging workforce. 

Gary Eichten, retired MPR news host who moderated the forums, said he was struck by how important this issue is to Minnesota’s economy and its employers. 

Tom Friedman stands at a podium at the Humphrey School Sept. 23, 2019
Tom Friedman

“But I’m also struck by how very little attention is given to it,” he added. “We talk about attracting young workers, we talk about retraining workers, but virtually nothing is said about taking advantage of older workers who are already here and on the job. We can’t afford to lose that resource.” 

The fact that government and business leaders in these communities are coming together in search of solutions is a positive sign, said New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who has traveled to towns in Minnesota and around the country to explore why some are prospering, while others are losing population and jobs. 

Using Willmar, Minnesota as one example, Friedman told the audience that thriving cities and towns have several things in common. They face an urgent need for change, they have strong community leaders who are willing to put ideas into action, and they all work together in coalitions that can adapt to changing circumstances. 

“These people say, ‘this town is not going to die on my watch.’ They talk about things that have to be done and then get them done,” said Friedman. “And they leave their politics at the door.”

The Courageous Conversations project is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with generous support from the McKnight Foundation. 

Read the final reportWatch the video of the event