Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #123. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Sep. 30, 2017; in print Oct. 1

The Sept. 10 “St. Cloud Area Quarterly Business Report” in the Times indirectly addresses “the renewal of human community,” the theme of my columns.

The statistics are on the whole encouraging: private sector payroll employment up 1.9 percent in 12 months; unemployment dipped to 3.3 percent; local labor force expanded by 1.5 percent; Index of Leading Economic Indicators up 0.35 percent. Forty-five percent of reporting firms expect a future increase in business activity; only 15 percent expect a decrease. Most worthy of celebration: 54 percent anticipate higher employee compensation (though this means 46 percent don’t).

The trend is upward. That’s good.

But parts of the story, lurking in the statistics, are more shadowed. While these issues are cause for concern, there are efforts afoot to address them.

Shortages in the labor force

“One-third of surveyed firms expect increased future difficulty attracting qualified workers, and no firms believe worker shortages will decrease by February 2018.”

No firms! We’ve all heard national news stories about shortages in the labor force. The Quarterly Business Report makes clear the St. Cloud area is not shielded. And this is not new. The “index on future difficulty attracting qualified workers has now been elevated for the past several years.”

There are two specific responses to the labor shortage — one with immediate impact, one long-term.

For now, business leaders, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, are speaking out forcefully against the Trump administration’s decision to end the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The St. Cloud Area Chamber should join the chorus.

The Times (“St. Cloud DACA recipient: ‘We're here to work’,” Sept. 14) tells about Luis Ramirez, an Apollo graduate who wants to become a police officer, and Paulina Bustillos, a Tech grad now at St. Cloud Technical & Community College. Surely local self-interest, as well as simple morality, says we shouldn’t deport these Dreamers (as DACA recipients are known), who are present and near-future members of the workforce, productive and innovative.

Longer-term, one of the goals of Partner for Student Success is career and post-secondary readiness. PFSS is marshaling and coordinating the resources of three school districts (St. Cloud, Sartell-St. Stephen, Sauk Rapids-Rice), area post-secondary schools, businesses, and nonprofits in the conviction that our greater community thrives when all students succeed. This depends on the commitment of the entire area community to the success of all students.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

And it’s not just at the end of preparation. The goal of lifelong learning begins at the beginning — PFSS starts with early childhood. Tom Schlough, retired CEO of Park Industries, who knows the business climate in this area as well as anyone, and who chairs the PFSS board, puts the whole mission plainly: “I believe this is a huge deal, the issue of youth development.”

Keeping ‘em here

The 100th anniversary of Tech High School has highlighted the contribution to the St. Cloud area of its graduates. Tech in its century, and Apollo in its nearly half-century, have trained and inspired thousands of civic, business, education and medical leaders. Still, there is a nagging sense we are not doing as well as we should at persuading people to remain here. The region is indeed GREATER>!, but too many young people appear not to have got the memo.

One statistic in the Quarterly Report is by turns encouraging and discouraging. In 2002, there were 8,921 people in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Statistical Area who traveled to St. Cloud to work, and 15,979 who traveled from the St. Cloud Metropolitan Statistical Area to work in the Twin Cities, a net outflow of 7,058. In 2014, 15,768 came into St. Cloud, 14,078 out from here, a net inflow of 1,690.

This is encouraging, as evidence that Twin Cities folks are alert to opportunities in our area. It’s discouraging, though, because the switch from outflow to inflow means more commuters’ wages are being deposited in Twin Cities banks than in local ones.

How to keep people here? The St. Cloud area is becoming increasingly attractive. Facilities and institutions rival what can be found in much larger cities.

The St. Cloud Area Family YMCA and Community Aquatics Center provides opportunities for everyone, from toddlers to a regular user who is 101 years old. The Paramount Center for the Arts , the Great River Educational Arts Theatre and Pioneer Place on Fifth provide entertainment that I often count as of Broadway quality. The restaurant scene, including new breweries, gets more varied all the time. And the new Tech High School will make clear to everyone that we really care about education. We’ve got to find a way to upgrade Apollo, too.

The Times has published the Quarterly Business Report since 1999. It’s a valuable service. Might the next Quarterly Business Reports include a “Renewal of Human Community Index”?