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Report: Racial, economic disparities threaten region's economic growth

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Researchers say the next generation of workers will be more diverse. But disparities in education and income are preventing people of color from getting the education and skills they need to perform jobs that are being vacated by retiring baby boomers. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
The authors of a new report released Thursday say the gap between the haves and have-nots living in the Twin Cities metro area threatens the economic viability of the entire region. Researchers with the Brookings Institution say the next generation of workers will be more racially and ethnically diverse than their predecessors. But they say too many of these young people lack the necessary education and skills to fill the jobs held by baby boomers who are reaching retirement age.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Generally speaking, the Twin Cities metro area has the building blocks of a strong economy -- low unemployment, low poverty and a highly skilled and educated workforce. But a closer examination shows a troubling trend.

According to data collected for a report titled "Mind the Gap," people of color in the Twin Cities have lower college attainment rates and lower household incomes than their white counterparts.

The report says that people of color tend to live farther away from areas where a growing number of jobs are being located. The data also shows that people of color will make up one-quarter of the next generation of workers.

The report was commissioned by the Itasca Project, a group of about 40 Twin Cities business leaders, academics and public officials. Members of the group say that not only is closing the gap the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense.

"It's very clear to me, the connection between this work and the future of my own organization, and I know that other business leaders are looking at it the same way," says Mary Brainerd, chair of the Itasca Project's disparities task force. Brainerd is also the CEO of HealthPartners.

Brainerd uses the health care industry as one example, because it has already experienced a shortage in qualified workers.

"We had a shortage a few years ago of nurses," she says. "We know that the average age of a nurse is about 45 years old. And we know that it's not very many years down the road and we're going to be experiencing shortages again, unless we can make those professions attractive. But also, we need to have people who are educated to fill those roles."

Many individuals in those circumstances have very little time to work on skill development, because they're trying to take care of their children and work at the same time.
- Debbie Atterberry

Better education and training for young people of color are key to closing the gap, says Debbie Atterberry. She's the president of Resource, Inc., a nonprofit, human service agency that provides employment, mental health, chemical health, and career improvement services.

Atterberry also contributed to the disparities report. She says efforts to help youth of color succeed in school should also include their families.

"Many of our families of youth of color are suffering economically, and have basic needs that need to be addressed such as housing. Or it could be a food emergency in terms of not having enough food in the house," Atterberry says. "Or the parents in the household themselves may need assistance with employment."

Atterberry says there are other ways to curb the disparities, like upgrading the public transportation system so poor people concentrated in the inner cities can get to suburban jobs; spreading out affordable housing so people can live closer to where they work.

Atterberry says businesses and nonprofit groups should team up to provide more flexible training classes that help people working in lower wage jobs move up the ladder.

"Many individuals in those circumstances are supporting families. They have very little time to work on skill development, because they're trying to take care of their children and work at the same time," Atterberry says. "So, we should be looking at what short-term training programs we need, how those can be funded so that they are affordable for people."

Danielle McShann may be just the type of person Mary Brainerd at Healthpartners may want to hire someday. McShann is 24 and African-American. She has come to the Midway Workforce Center in St. Paul to find a job in customer service -- something accessible by bus, because she doesn't have a car.

"I went to college for medical coding, but I'm about to start up again for nursing. I want to be a nurse," she says.

McShann adds that she's looking for a job to help her pay for nursing school and to help her take care of her son.

The Itasca Project report also includes some basic elements to reducing disparities, like providing adequate health care, education and public safety for all residents; working to close the wealth gap and to make sure the remedies are done on a regional scale.