An economy stuck on ‘trudge’

PHOTO:, flickr/truthout, Flickr CC, BY-SA

PHOTO:, flickr/truthout, Flickr CC, BY-SA

According to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development data from late 2014, for the first time in the 14-year history of this survey, there are more jobs available for residents of Northeastern Minnesota than there are people seeking jobs. That sounds pretty good, until you read the fine print.

Last week, the Jobs Now Coalition sent me a fact sheet about employment figures for Northeastern Minnesota, broadly defined as St. Louis, Itasca, Aitkin, Lake, Cook and Carlton Counties. In their review of the same data, they made these observations:

Other findings for the Arrowhead Region include:
* Sixty-five percent of all openings are part-time.
* The median wage for part-time openings is $10.00 per hour.
* Only 30 percent of all openings require education or training beyond high school.
* Only 7 percent of all openings require a four-year degree.
* Nearly half of all openings are in the four largest occupations—personal care and service, sales, office and administrative support, and food preparation and serving. These openings have a combined median wage of $9.54 per hour.

According to DEED’s Cost of Living in Minnesota research, the Arrowhead Region average for a family-supporting wage is $13.96 per hour. To see the updated Cost of Living research by county, use DEED’s Cost of Living Calculator at /data-tools/col/index.jsp

I teach at a community college on the Iron Range. As far as teaching jobs go, this kind of work puts me on the front lines of our enduring social battle with poverty and the struggles of those seeking upward economic mobility.

My job also gives me a good look at family economic collapse, the effects of divorce or health problems, substance abuse and mental illness. Now, I don’t speak for my students, and what I write here certainly isn’t representative of my employer. Further, it’s not accurate to substitute my anecdotes for actual economic data. Nevertheless, my work shows me interesting examples of economic trends all the time. It informs what I believe about my community and my world.

In my 11 years of classroom teaching, these last two years have showed me something I didn’t see much at the beginning of my tenure. Students have been actively struggling with whether to go to college and absorb the resulting costs or work in low-level, relatively low-income jobs that allow them to live independently. The jobs are nothing special, but in the last two years they’ve been winning this struggle more often.

Sometimes it’s students who sign up for class and either never come or quit when it become evident they’ll need books and a computer. Sometimes it’s students who complete a semester, but decide for myriad reasons to abandon the pursuit of a degree for something that pays the rent.

It’s hard to understate how much most community college students are fixated on how to pay basic living expenses like rent, transportation and food. Good students shuck a speech or paper to work a few extra shifts to make a payment. Child care and health are constant factors. I’m not saying that every student would be guaranteed to succeed, but many folks in this situation never really have a chance to find out what they’re capable of doing in school.

What the good news/bad news data also show is how Northeastern Minnesota’s economy is much more impacted by the lack of opportunity outside traditional fields like mining, logging and manufacturing. The rhetoric often seems to suggest that all of these folks could be “saved” by new mining jobs, but the numbers of people who need quality employment are far, far greater than even the most fanciful mining employment projection.

Further, the fact that so many part-time, low-pay jobs are available shows what businesses are doing to make it in this same economy. Every year there are more humans, but the jobs we offer them are increasingly less human. Indeed, many of the honorable trades of the past are now handled exclusively by machines.

There’s another thing I see in my Northeastern Minnesota students — and now I’m talking about the ones that graduate and transfer to four-year schools. Because of my interest in the topic, I do a number of assignments related to improving communities and solving problems in our region. I don’t direct students how to respond; I simply give them a prompt like “what can we do to attract and keep more young people in our region?”

What often emerges from the assignment is the kind of frustration with the status quo that would likely chill the spine of politicians and consultants alike. I don’t mean these students are agitated; rather, they’ve quietly accepted that they’ll need to move on. Meantime, the ones who want to stay would happily work anywhere in exchange for proximity to hunting, fishing, lakes and family.

This is the stone cold crux of our situation in Northeastern Minnesota, found with increasing ease in economic data or out on the street. Our economy is stuck on “trudge,” no matter what happens in Minneapolis, St. Paul, the skyscrapers of New York, or the halls of Washington, D.C.

We’re not alone. This is happening all over the country in places like this. Addressing this growing disparity is the challenge that will define the future of our country, and certainly the lives of the students that I’ll proudly watch graduate this week.


  1. Great piece Aaron!

  2. Ranger47 says

    Aaron…You’re saying Obama, Dayton, Reid, Pelosi, Bakk have had no impact on our economy? B.S. It could be the tannin in that Prairie River water you’re drinking.

    I take umbrage with your statement – “no matter what happens in St. Paul or the halls of Washington, D.C. our economy will remain in trudge”. That’s simply not true. Both Obama and Dayton rightfully claim their policies have had a tremendous impact on our Range economy. But it’s certainly not positive as they proclaim…and as you point out in your post.

    Less than 6 months ago Obama said – “By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office”. Just a month ago, Dayton proclaimed – “What we have been doing is working. More Minnesota businesses are expanding. So, more Minnesotans are working. They are earning more money, which means they are paying more taxes”. He was right on one account; we’re certainly paying more taxes.

  3. This is a really good piece. It made me wonder if your students are interested in the “TransPacificPartnership” similar “trade” deals, and see them controversy over it as relevant to their futures.

  4. Our children are in their 30’s. I often think how much harder, more expensive it is for high school grads to go to college now than it was for our kids. Some got scholarships and we also helped them financially which they paid back when they all got settled in their chosen careers. None of their careers are in northern MN. They love it up here but there are no jobs in the fields they chose with the corresponding salaries. Only one lives in MN and the rest are in far flung states.

    This is the same route that the majority of our kid’s classmates and northern MN friends chose. Only a handful of their classmates and friends chose the tougher reality of scarce well paying jobs to stay in the area they love. This trend has been going on for a long time and I doubt it will change in the foreseeable future.

    The one good change is that parents can now have their kids on their health insurance plans while they are in college. We had to buy bare bones health insurance plans for our kids while they were going to college and just prayed they all stayed healthy.

  5. You are so right Aaron, I hear it all the time when speaking with friends of mine of all ages. I believe that this challenge begins at a very young age, when teachers tell their young students you won’t be able to find work here, despite their dedication to their families and way of life. We need to change the commentary, look at our community members as the assets they are. It’s time to change the situation and it needs to begin with our youngest learners by challenging them to think outside the box – what business would you own that could help us all? What could you do that would change our communities economy? Start looking at our youngest learners as our potential community leaders and teach them the skills to use their creativity to advance us all. It is a desperate situation here and now is the time to change our future!

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