On North Side, a big plan to build up workforce

A new program that ties together job training and counseling aims to move 2,000 black men from north Minneapolis into living-wage jobs by 2020, an ambitious goal that could reinvigorate the local workforce and help close a wide employment gap.
Designed to fill holes in existing job training programs, the North@Work program provides long-term support to workers and employers to help ensure participants not only find jobs but also stay employed. The initiative, pioneered by the Northside Funders Group public-private partnership, will scale up gradually.
Officially, the state places the overall unemployment rate around 4 percent. For black Minnesotans, that figure jumps to 13 percent. The disparity is among the biggest in the country, a blemish on a Minnesota economy that has otherwise won national praise in recent years. Some say the gap is even bigger.
By the Funders Group’s count, an eye-popping 51 percent of north Minneapolis black men between the ages of 16 and 64 are not working. That includes men squeezed out of the traditional labor force by a dearth of available jobs, who are not counted in typical unemployment tallies that reflect only those searching for work.
“The numbers of men who are unemployed in north Minneapolis are significant,” said Tawanna Black, the group’s executive director and North@Work architect. “We’re trying to make a big dent in it, kind of as a pivot point or a tipping point.”
After a year dissecting benefits and pitfalls of existing programs, gathering feedback from employers and analyzing the experiences of black men, North@Work launched this month. It mimics best practices and counters weak points with employer-specific training and fast-tracked certification programs.
The formula also includes aptitude testing and ongoing coaching on both sides, for employers looking to support diversity as they increase their headcounts as well as workers who have, in some cases, been out of the mainstream workforce for years.
“Often, the CEO might be saying, ‘Yes, we should do this,’ but if the CEO isn’t prepared to be an inclusive supervisor or if the leadership developers see this partnership more as charity than helping the workforce, then it’s a recipe for a lot of turnover,” Black said.
A handful of partners with close ties to north Minneapolis, including the Minneapolis Urban League and job counselor EMERGE, will facilitate the program. A handful of backers have invested $450,000 in the initiative so far.
Employer and worker recruitment is underway now, and this year the Funders Group expects to train and find jobs for an initial cohort of 25 men.
Next year, it expects to 400 men to work their way through the program. From there, the goal increases exponentially, buoyed by a growing network of job-training and employer partners.
Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis – another partner on the project – will begin by placing North@Work participants in its machining, automotive and carpet-laying programs. In each of those fields, demand for workers far outmatches the talent available, Dunwoody Provost Jeff Ylinen said.
North@Work funding will cover the bulk of tuition costs, with a small amount passed onto participants in longer-running programs.
The average course will take between 12 and 18 weeks, but Dunwoody plans to integrate options – like its carpet-laying certification – that require substantially less time. Each track will allow for further training, Ylinen said, if workers want to pursue it.
Dunwoody could also expand its North@Work offerings to include tech training, increasingly sought after in a Twin Cities market desperate to fill plenty of high-paying tech jobs.
“We don’t want [workers] to move up a little bit from minimum wage or go from no job to a job that is somewhat low-wage,” Ylinen said. “We want this to be something they can build over time, so it turns into something that provides a much more livable wage.”
Dunwoody officials are helping build the network of prospective employers participating in North@Work. A substantial pool of untapped workers on the North Side represents a major opportunity for enterprising organizations, the provost said.
Hennepin County, a member of the Northside Funders Group, signed on as one of the program’s first employer-partners.
One-third of the county’s workforce – or about 2,200 employees – could retire in the next half-decade. The overhaul marks an opportunity for Hennepin County to implement an inclusion strategy of its own by backfilling some of those positions with local workers from traditionally under-served communities.
Openings will continue to pop up in IT, facilities maintenance and construction, among other areas, said John Thorson, Hennepin County’s workforce development coordinator. More flexible hiring standards will, in some cases, expand opportunities by allowing field experience as a substitute for education or cutting qualifications not vital to a job’s day-to-day functions.
“Economic disparities cost the county and are a drag on our regional economy,” Thorson said. “To the extent that the services we provide, and also we as an employer, can target closing disparities, that’s good for the bottom line of the county and it’s good for our regional economy.”
The philosophy underpins the program. People of color often earn less than their white counterparts, and the idea of North@Work is to provide a meaningful boost to a demographic that faces an especially difficult struggle to keep up – an issue under a bright political spotlight.
Gov. Mark Dayton tried for a special session this year to tackle those gaps. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a public letter last month the disparities threaten the state’s short- and long-term viability.
Still, EMERGE President and CEO Mike Wynne called North@Work “a refreshing new day.” Program advocates say the initiative offers the latest and best chance to invigorate some of the state’s most disadvantaged workers with cohesive partnerships and a comprehensive strategy — keys to generating solid outcomes.
“For a long time, we’ve looked at this population as only qualifying for maybe minimum-wage jobs or jobs where it was truly just a job,” Black said. “Sectors where people can come in at a family-sustaining wage is a critical factor for us — and sectors that are growing.”
A previous version of this story misidentified Tawanna Black.

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