Dayton’s jobs summit takes a hard, hopeful look at Minnesota’s future

By Doug Grow | Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011 | Minn Post

For a couple of hours anyhow, Gov. Mark Dayton’s jobs summit was a hard, but hopeful, look at what Minnesota might be. 

At Tuesday’s session, about 800 people talking mostly about the positive things Minnesota has to sell to those looking to run successful businesses. “If we have been slipping,” said Bill George, the former chief executive officer of Medtronic and now a professor of management at Harvard, “we do still have the resources to become a national leader in creating jobs.” 

George spoke of the “quality of the people and the civility of the workforce” in Minnesota. And he praised the state’s core strengths: health care and education. George’s comments, and many more like them from other leaders, weren’t the only good vibes being felt at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Paul. There was no talk of a Vikings stadium, which seemed to lift the spirits of everyone in attendance. 

A couple of clouds
But then, around noon, two clouds drifted over the otherwise hopeful setting. Cloud One: Just across the hall from a space dubbed the Innovation Room, where creative product displays of Minnesota companies were on display, the St. Paul Rotary Club was holding its meeting. The Rotarians’ guest speaker? The Vikings’ Lester Bagley, who was talking about the need for Minnesota to help the team build a stadium in Arden Hills. This was proof that no matter where they go, Minnesota leaders are going to be tailed by the Vikings “issue.” 

Cloud Two: Michael Mandelbaum — co-author with Thomas Friedman of a top-selling book “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back” — offered the keynote address at the gov’s big event. Mandelbaum is an American foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins and is supposed to be one of the country’s great thinkers. That may be. But he also can suck the hope out of a room filled with earnest people. 

A downer, nonpartisan message
This much should be said for Mandelbaum. He is nonpartisan. In his long speech, he said things that offended Democrats and Republicans. Mandelbaum offended Democrats by saying that in order to attack the national debt, the government “will have to break promises it made” to people expecting to receive pensions, Social Security and Medicare. He offended Republicans by saying that “taxes need to be raised” and the nation needs to understand “climate change exists.” But mostly what he did was go on and on about what a mess the country is in. 

The infrastructure’s falling apart. Kids aren’t being educated. Universities aren’t being funded at necessary levels. The political system “is not working.” On a day that people had charged into St. Paul looking to take on the state’s economic and image woes, this lunchtime talk was such a downer that people were hoping they’d be served antidepressants for dessert. Mandelbaum did try to resuscitate the crowd in the dying-gasp minutes of his address. With a straight face, he claimed that the book he and Friedman wrote is “an optimistic book.” The hope, he said, is to be found in the “grass roots” of the country, not at the top, and noted that America’s past shows it’s a country that can “master challenges.” Finally, he and Friedman said, they’ve got the answer for the political woes. They believe an independent candidate needs to run for president, “a radical centrist.” He didn’t mention Jesse Ventura as a possible candidate. 

Overall, however, the tone of the summit was refreshingly positive. Despite Dayton making “jobs, jobs, jobs” the emphasis of his first year in office, there was little in this conference that was about immediate jobs. Instead, it was an attempt to be futuristic, without being goofy. 

Small businesses getting some help
“It would be easy to be all talk, no action,” said Neil Crocker, president of Schaefer Ventilation, a privately held company in Sauk Rapids. Crocker praised some of the things government does to help Minnesota’s smaller businesses, describing his company as “a heavy user of state services.” Many of the company’s 50 employees, he noted, were trained at state colleges and universities. The company also has “taken advantage of the state’s trade office” in creating markets overseas. But he did note that business taxes in the state are high. “We have to avoid killing the golden goose,” he said. 

Speaker after speaker talked of how Minnesota’s competitive advantage always has been its educated workforce and made the point that education will become increasingly important. “Many of us are not aware of how different the world is today than five years ago, 10 years ago,” Crocker said. “I get a kick out of those who talk about job creation being tied to manufacturing recovery. It’s not happening. That ship has sailed.” That means Minnesota will have to offer more people a better education than ever before. Here’s how University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler put it: “People don’t always come to Minnesota because of the weather. They come because of smart people.” 

Employers and educators both talked of education as the key cog in the state’s future. “It’s a painful reality that many of the 215,000 Minnesotans without jobs don’t have the education needed for the new economy,” said Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. He noted that “78 percent of all jobs in Minnesota by 2018 will require some postsecondary education.” At most events in recent months in Minnesota, this would have led to a partisan, finger-pointing political fight about the need to invest more in all levels of education. 

Rep. Matt Dean praises effort
But this event didn’t collapse into petty bickering, in part because most Republican legislative leaders were no-shows and in part because Dayton started the day by saying the summit was to be about “ideas, not ideologies.” Rep. Matt Dean, majority leader and the only Republican legislative leader at the summit, seemed to be caught up in the spirit of the event. 

Dean was a member of a panel devoted to talking about how Minnesota should “brand” itself. The thought, by the way, seems to be that Minnesota needs some sort of unified “brand image.” Currently, the Department of Tourism uses “Explore Minnesota.” The state’s license plates read: “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” A lot of people inside and outside the state seem to think the motto is an old Hamm’s Beer jingle, “Land of Sky Blue Waters.” So there’s a study going on. The brand people, by the way, really like how Michigan government and business organizations have gotten together around the theme “Pure Michigan.” Hmmm. Tongue in cheek, Dean suggested branding that reflects the personality of our population: “Not so bad.” 

But Dean, with sincerity, praised Dayton for bringing together so many people looking to do good for the state. “It’s important to lead from the top and spread a positive message,” Dean said. Other than the keynote address and the lurking stadium issue, there was a positive aura at the summit, although no one suggested what lies ahead will be easy. “I don’t think there’s an easy road ahead for our state,” the governor said at the end of the day. “But it’s a road we must take.” He promised to have the beginning of an action plan in place today. Presumably, then he can get back to the serious work of solving the Vikings’ stadium dilemma.