Closing the skills gap in the Phillips neighborhood


One of the most unforgettable economic policy statements I ever heard came from a presidential candidate in the early 1990s who explained that we had lots of people who needed work, and lots of work that needed to be done, and that we ought to get those two problems on the same page.

And so it is with the “skills gap” and the “equity gap” in Minnesota.

On one hand, we have Minnesota employers routinely reporting that they can’t fill job openings because they can’t find people with the right skills for those positions.

On the other hand, we know that for communities of color and for both young and old who live in low-income neighborhoods and regions, unemployment rates are obscenely higher than for the rest of the state.

Workforce development strategies aimed more precisely at closing those two gaps simultaneously — training and educating those workers most in need of jobs to fill specific job openings — make the most sense as we drive to reduce unemployment and increase economic growth in Minnesota.

Lots of models for linking workforce development to targeted local economic development are popping up in Minnesota and around the country. And one of the best lessons from the recent past is offered in a policy brief published this week and authored by Mike Christenson, a Growth & Justice policy fellow and former director of community planning and economic development under Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Christenson now is associate vice president of workforce development at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Christenson tells the story, in his own voice, of a comeback for the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, roughly bounded by Interstate 35W, Hiawatha Avenue, Lake Street and Interstate 94.

By the mid 1990s, the neighborhood’s vital signs — crime rates, job losses, physical decline of housing and infrastructure — were trending down in an all-too-familiar story of American urban decline.

Over the next 10 years, a rather remarkable response by corporate and community leaders and ordinary folks in the neighborhood helped turn Phillips around and achieve encouraging results in employment and crime reduction.

And as Christenson tells it, job training was a central facet of the targeted strategy, right next to the bull’s-eye issue of public safety. At the outset of the effort, Christenson headed the Allina Foundation, which located their new headquarters in Phillips neighborhood, near Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Concerned about crime and other challenges in the neighborhood, corporate leaders of local employers such as the Allina Health System and Honeywell joined with local elected officials, and a new public-private partnership was born. Christenson said those leaders identified jobs, housing and infrastructure as targets, along with public safety. It became clear that a local job-training effort would benefit the neighborhood’s residents and help solve the labor shortage Allina was experiencing.

Despite a large number of people in the neighborhood needing work, Allina was using a temp agency and bringing employees in from North Dakota and as far away as the Philippines to fill a huge number of vacancies — as many as 1,800 on one day in 1999.

All the local human capital needed was a little training for entry-level health care positions in food and environmental services, from which they could progress to becoming certified nursing assistants, medical technicians and even to more skilled medical vocations.

“Intuitively, I believed a job would provide a significant boost,” Christenson writes. “What could more effectively treat a child’s asthma than transition from unemployment to a hospital job for the parent? What other intervention would anchor homeownership, provide health insurance, and foster hope and ambition in struggling households?”

Through the Train to Work program launched for this initiative, neighborhood residents received training in job readiness, workplace expectations and life management skills to meet the entry-level staffing needs of Abbott Northwestern hospital and other health care facilities. The program still exists today, run by Project for Pride in Living, one of the state’s most effective nonprofits. Train to Work offers employment training, internships and support. And since 1997, the program has produced more than 1,000 graduates and over 700 job placements, according to the Phillips Partnership website.

Job training also came from a new partnership between Allina and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. A new Health Careers Institute opened by the Minneapolis Community and Technical College provided more career-oriented job training for neighborhood residents and more skilled employees for the health care sector.

Christenson’s brief (available at offers 10 lessons for advancing the public-private partnerships it takes to get such turnarounds moving. And he concludes that “a public-private partnership delivered where no single organization or sector had succeeded before. …In today’s urban American, perhaps nothing else works.”

Plenty of positive signs abound that some of Minnesota’s newest leaders, and a few more experienced hands such as St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, are fully engaged in getting the skills gap on the same page as the equity gap.

Star Tribune editorial columnist Lori Sturdevant wrote a compelling op-ed about the public-private partnership launched recently by MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. That Workforce Assessment Initiative is perhaps the most ambitious statewide effort ever to ascertain specific workforce training needs from the private sector and then to systematically deliver the trained workers needed. Two other leaders new to their posts, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Office of Higher Education Director Larry Pogemiller, are already involved in that effort.

Meanwhile, Rybak’s 11th State of the City address last week laid out a vision of “One Minneapolis, Growing North,” and a commitment to a renaissance of economic development and job training and creation for North Minneapolis, home of some of the highest rates of poverty in the city.

Rybak reviewed job-training progress under the RENEW program (green jobs training for low-income job seekers) and STEP-UP, a summer internship program, and announced a new college internship program called Urban Scholars, a program aimed at strengthening and diversifying public service leadership.

His underlying theme, expressed more than once, is that the equity gap in employment was not just unfair but also bad for the economy, and, ultimately, bad for all of us.

“If the city wants to grow, the key will be North Minneapolis,” Rybak said from the recently renovated Capri Theater. “The racial employment gap is morally wrong and potentially economically ruinous for North Minneapolis and our entire region in the near and especially long term. We must eliminate it once and for all.”

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, April 19, 2012.