Head of MN Business Partnership reflects on state of the workforce

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership — a downtown-based organization representing the CEOs of the state’s largest companies — sees challenges and opportunities on the horizon for the state’s economy.

For the upcoming legislative session, the partnership will be lobbying for commercial property tax relief and a transportation bill, among other things.

“I think both sides of the aisle and the governor have all coalesced around a need for a comprehensive transportation solution,” he said.

Weaver has lead the Minnesota Business Partnership since 2003. Before his current post, he served as chief of staff for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Here are highlights of a recent interview with Weaver:

 

Q: What are some of the key issues the partnership is focused on now?

The biggest thing for my members, which are the leaders of Minnesota’s largest companies, is education. It is probably issue one, two and three. If you’re Medtronic, 3M, Target, St. Jude or Boston Scientific, or any of these awesome companies we have here, they’re looking down the road five and 10 years and looking at the graduation rates here in Minnesota, especially in Minneapolis. Frankly there are going to be more jobs than there are qualified people here, unless we really get a handle on this — especially in Minneapolis.

Q: What key areas are you focused on in terms of education?

There’s really two avenues — one is at the capital. We’ve been very strong in trying to get rid of LIFO (Last In, First Out) — this crazy law that forces school districts to fire the most recent person hired if they have budget problems, which is insane. There’s only 10 states that have that law and it causes us to fire some of our best and brightest teachers.

We support more money for Teacher for America. We strongly opposed getting rid of graduation standards. That was a horrible setback. Before in Minnesota you had to at least demonstrate basic competence in math, science and reading. … Basically if you have a pulse, you’re going to graduate, and that’s not helpful to any business that wants to hire a Minnesota graduate. They now don’t know what they’re getting. We aren’t holding kids accountable.

… In light of what is happening in Minneapolis at the School Board this last couple weeks, we should rethink whether we should break up that district — break it into four or five smaller districts. …

I think a lot of parents are intimidated by the size of the district. It’s hard to get things done because everything is done at a massive scale.

Q: What about early education? What should be the priorities?

We think the scholarship approach makes the most sense. We supported that at the capital. … Frankly in the wealthier suburbs they don’t need scholarship money, but they do need it [inner city neighborhoods.] Lets focus it on the parents who need it— the people who are economically disadvantaged and have a tough time making ends meet. Lets get their kids the help they need. Statistics show that those are the kids who need it the most and would benefit the most.

Q: What other key business trends are you focused on this year?

We got to keep an eye on state spending given what’s going on China right now. We’re just one crazy dictator away from fluctuations in the stock market. … It’s a global economy and so that should cause all of us as we go into this legislative session to be careful.

We have this $1.2 billion [state budget] surplus. We’re going to be cautioning legislators to not spend it all. … Most of the companies here in Minnesota are hopeful and optimistic, but the economy still is fragile.

Q: Are there some areas of the state’s economy that are stronger this year?

Any companies that aren’t dependent on a global market are doing well — so the banks. US Bank is doing well. Wells Fargo is doing well. Medical device continues to be a strong area. Even though the commodity prices are down a little bit, still Cargill and Land O’Lakes are doing well and poised to do even better.

One of the reasons you have very low unemployment here is we’re diversified. …

Frankly in Minnesota we have more jobs than we do potential workers. We need to do a better job of linking graduates to jobs. A lot of graduates are graduating with degrees that really aren’t worth much. The businesses could do a better job of telling colleges or two-year schools what we need.

Q: What are some of those jobs in high demand?

Well, like welders and nurses. There are emerging markets that didn’t exist five years ago — 3D printers. The are lot of retirements in the trades. If you look at carpenters or electricians or plumbers or welders, there’s a real need. …

One of the challenges with the trades is that there is a feeling among parents that if their kid doesn’t go to college they’re a failure. It’s so wrong, but we need to work at dispelling that and let kids know that these are great careers — you can grow your family, get a house and do all the things you want to do by being in the trades.

Q: Another big issue in Minneapolis is the debate over a paid sick leave ordinance. Do you have a position?

Our position is that this is not a problem that requires a one-size-fits-all solution. Most of my members provide all of these benefits. Frankly what is being proposed by the Council would hurt a lot of those employees because employees prefer PTO instead of paid sick leave. It’s also a patchwork problem. If you’re Target — you have 6,000 employees in Minneapolis that would be effected, but you also have 4,000 people in Brooklyn Park. How are you going to do that from an HR perspective? Putting this as a mandate is a bad idea.