When I was 16, I left Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya after fleeing my home country of Somalia’s civil war. I came to America in search of a better life. My family and I ended up in Colorado, where I got a job at McDonald’s to help support my family. As I watched my mom and elder siblings learn a new language, find work, and figure out how to survive and thrive in our new neighborhood, it became clear to me that a good job was the key to building a better life in the U.S.
That experience shaped who I am, and, years later, when I moved my own family from California to Minnesota, it was a big part of my reason for taking a role in Gov. Tim Walz’s administration as the deputy commissioner to lead Minnesota’s Workforce Development System. I wanted to serve our state by reshaping our system to help more people find great jobs in our state.
This past year has been devastating for communities of color in Minnesota. Throughout the pandemic, workers of color have suffered far greater job losses than other Minnesotans. One chilling statistic: more than 50% of Black and Native-American workers lost work at some point during the pandemic. That’s simply not acceptable.
The problem is this: Workers of color face systemic barriers that result in them being more likely to work in lower-paying jobs in the service industry, which was greatly affected by the pandemic. Employment opportunities in some of the most affected occupations will take years to return to pre-pandemic levels. Some of those jobs may never return due to automation and other changes.
In order to build an inclusive economy, we need real reform. That’s why Gov. Walz has set clear budget priorities that focus on helping Minnesotans find jobs who were most impacted by COVID-19 employment loss.
There are two key proposals to highlight. First, we need to reform our state’s Workforce Development Fund to maximize the benefit of training programs and support services. Reforms will allow us to implement innovative new ideas and provide better employment “on ramps” to get people back to work. Second, we need to implement the Minnesota Workforce Stabilization Grant program so eligible Minnesotans can attend a public or tribal college to earn a certificate or degree in an in-demand field.
We need to help people find new career pathways in in-demand fields. We’re doing it right now through our community partners and CareerForce services. For example, we can help workers who used to be in food service get connected to roles in health care that use those skills. We can help hospitality workers train for tech jobs. Our reskilling initiatives, in partnership with K-12, higher education, and nonprofit training providers will put people back to work.
When we can do that, at scale, we can generate income for individuals and communities and drive economic activity that benefits the whole state. Successful reskilling is a win-win, helping Minnesotans find sustainable employment and helping Minnesota employers find the employees they need to grow and succeed.
We aren’t striving to get back to where we were; we’re ready to change for the better. We have the opportunity to begin again, like my family did, with good jobs that pay enough for people to afford food, housing, and other necessities and by supporting small-business owners as they provide for their families and strengthen their communities.
We have work to do to get there, but I have confidence that, working together, we can rebuild a more equitable Minnesota economy that works for everyone.
Hamse Warfa is the deputy commissioner for Workforce Development at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.