When employees at St. Paul’s Minnesota WorkForce Center are working harder than usual, that means a lot of people aren’t working — and according to Site Manager Jim Schultz, the slumping economy is keeping them as busy as ever.
“In terms of people coming in, we see the gamut from entry-level people that lack their GED or high school diploma as well as highly educated people with masters and even a few doctorate degrees,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s facility is one of 47 workforce centers across the state established by the Department of Employment and Economic Development as a way to help bolster the state’s labor market. The centers provide unemployed workers with free access to a variety of training opportunities and resources to help them find new jobs and expand their career options.
With the current economic recession deepening, the centers have had their work cut out for them. At the St. Paul location alone, Schultz said the number of visits to his facility jumped from 29,000 in 2007 to 37,000 in 2008 — an increase of nearly 30 percent. Demands for their services are so high, Schultz said, that they’ve had to institute new policies such as time limits on use of job-search computers in their resource center.
In fact, they’ve even had to take the unusual step of hiring a security guard, because, as Schultz put it, “To be honest … not having a job is very stressful to people, and sometimes we found people engaging in bad behavior.”
If the latest projected unemployment trends are any indication, the same story is playing out all over the state — and the situation is likely to get worse. Projections by DEED’s Labor Market Information Office indicate that as many as 260,000 Minnesotans are likely to be jobless by the end of 2009 — an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent.
This means that in addition to the 39,000 workers who lost their jobs last year, another 61,000 could be out of work before the end of this year. The situation is so bad that DEED officials are warning that the state’s unemployment insurance funds will be exhausted by Christmas, forcing the state to borrow from the federal government to cover workers’ unemployment benefits.
A few miles down the road from the workforce center, lawmakers at the State Capitol are at work on a new plan to stem the tide of job losses and provide some relief to the state’s workforce.
HF1 and SF1, sponsored by House Majority Leader Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) and Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), are intended to serve as the vehicle for Minnesota to accept its share of what could be a massive economic stimulus package from the federal government. There are no details on the package yet, or on how much Minnesota could receive, but President-elect Barack Obama has asked Congress for billions of dollars in funding for any number of infrastructure projects and other public works, with the goal of reinvigorating the economy and creating new jobs. Action is expected within the first few weeks of Obama’s presidency.
At a Jan. 12 press conference, House and Senate DFL leaders explained that the purpose of the session’s first bill is to signal the federal government that Minnesota is “ready, willing and able” to accept federal stimulus dollars.
“We feel it’s important to introduce this bill to first and foremost say, ‘Minnesota is ready to receive these funds, and we’re going to be spending them in the most appropriate way possible with projects that are ready to go right away,’” Sertich said, adding that legislators would seek to “maximize” the amount of federal resources provided to the state.
Sertich named a variety of different areas where he thought the funding might go, including transportation, health care, education and energy. He said House and Senate committees would likely hold hearings to ask state agencies what public works projects needed funding and how soon they could begin.
“We want to be going down a parallel track with them (the federal government) … so when that bill is signed on President Obama’s desk, and those resources come to Minnesota, we have already been actively working to develop a plan to get those resources out the door to stimulate Minnesota’s economy,” Sertich said.
Lawmakers might find that some of the work has already been done.
One example is in the area of renewable energy, where the Green Jobs Task Force, an entity created by the Legislature in 2008, has been working to develop an action plan that could fit right into planning on how to use the stimulus money.
Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch), co-chair of the task force, said renewable energy and energy conservation projects are particularly worthwhile for government to invest in because of their cost-efficiency. He gives the example of retrofitting public buildings to make them more energy efficient — something that costs money up front but saves taxpayer money in the long run.
“In fact, every day that we don’t get more folks to work doing so, we’re actually seeing more dollars go out the window and up the smokestack,” Kalin said. He added that green jobs are a “win-win-win” situation that provides employment, save taxpayer dollars and increase energy independence.
Few other options
The plan’s reliance on federal assistance makes some Republicans skeptical. The whole reason the federal government can provide any assistance at all is that it has the ability to run budget deficits — a luxury that Minnesota’s own constitution doesn’t allow. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said that the U.S. government is effectively bankrupt, and should avoid digging itself further into debt. Similarly, House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) said in a press conference last week that as an “old-time Republican,” he is concerned about the federal deficit and the “spendaholics” in Congress. He said he would like to see any jobs stimulus plan focus on private sector-based solutions.
Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont), a member of the Green Jobs Task Force, said that although he supports spending money on the green economy and job creation in general, he is concerned about the federal government’s poor track record on managing taxpayer money. He points to the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program — better known as the Wall Street bailout — as a recent example.
“After they spent $350 billion, they said, ‘Where’s the money? What is it doing?’ We have no knowledge if the people we gave it to are doing what we thought they would do,” Gunther said, adding that he sees no reason to believe that federal stimulus plans will be better managed in the future.
Gunther offered praise for the Dislocated Worker Program and other DEED job-training services, calling them “nation-leading,” and said legislators should take care not to divert funding away from them. He noted a strong workforce — filled with workers paying income taxes — is the best way to avoid budget deficits like the one the state faces now.