On the Range, industry built on red ore shows gray hairs

Paul Tosto at the MPR’s MinnEcon blog reported some interesting data today. Minnesota enjoys a diverse economy and, like most of the country, an aging workforce. Which sector of Minnesota’s economy has the most workers aged 55 and older? Well, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development, the answer is mining. And in Minnesota mining is currently concentrated here on the Mesabi Iron Range.

DEED says that more than 27 percent of Minnesota mining industry workers are over the age of 55. This seems surprising at first perhaps, but it makes more sense when you think about the Range economy. Mining jobs contracted significantly after the steel industry consolidation that began in the early ’80s and continued for more than 20 years. Workers who had reliable mining jobs held on to them tightly and many are now over 55.

This supports the notion that with a strong demand for steel in coming years there will be significant numbers of mining jobs available as these workers retire. Anecdotally I can think of many examples of young or youngish workers hired at local mines very recently, a trend poised to continue.

On the other hand, part of this older worker phenomenon might be attributable to mining companies hiring experienced workers to fill out the roster, particularly for new projects. With so much mining expertise held over from the ’80s such workers are a reliable option. The economic implications are that these jobs are good, not great, for the region. Older workers don’t have young kids in the school and tend to already have established households. But they do buy things and build things, so the net positives remain.

For me, though, this information merely highlights the Range’s demographic transition from a younger blue collar community to one that is older and more economically stratified.

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