The latest jobs numbers from the state, released late last month, weren’t a good look on Duluth.
Unless you dug deeper.
“It’s complicated” and the numbers reported “had some challenges,” APEX President and CEO Brian Hanson advised.
The numbers were “presented without context,” Mayor Emily Larson said.
And that produced “not a totally complete picture,” according to Duluth Workforce Development Director Elena Foshay.
The grim news first, at least as it seemed on the surface: The Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, was the only major MSA in Minnesota to lose jobs — 500, according to a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development comparison of December 2018 and December 2019 figures. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA gained more than 2,100 jobs, the St. Cloud MSA gained more than 750 jobs, and the Rochester MSA gained a little more than 100 jobs.
As bad as that may have seemed for Duluth, “There was some context missing that’s important to understand behind the numbers,” Foshay said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page this week.
For one thing, “In Duluth, the sample size is fairly small. So it’s not actually a very complete picture,” she said.
For another, the comparison was from December to December. And December in Duluth means the end of construction season. Many of the 500 jobs “lost” were seasonal, or only temporarily lost, Foshay pointed out.
Another chunk of the 500 was due to retiring state workers whose positions weren’t immediately filled, she said.
Had the comparison been November 2018 to November 2019, the Duluth MSA would have shown a gain in jobs instead. A modest gain, but 54 to the good is far more preferable than 500 on the trash heap. Had the comparison been October to October, our jobs picture would have been even brighter, with a gain of 766 new jobs in Northeastern Minnesota.
Considering all that, “I'm not comfortable concluding we are losing jobs based on this data, mainly due to wild monthly swings and seasonality,” APEX’s Hanson said in a statement to the News Tribune Opinion page.
“It’s like this weird, moment-in-time data that doesn’t tell the full picture,” said Foshay.
A better barometer is coming in March, Foshay and Hanson said, when the state releases a jobs report that reflects annual averages rather reporting month-to-month comparisons. Those comparisons clearly can be misleading or easily manipulated.
Duluth’s workforce and job-creation challenges are similar to anywhere else in the state, Foshay and Hanson said. Specifically, a workforce that’s rapidly aging, retiring, and shrinking is making it difficult to fill increasing numbers of open positions. Also, Duluth’s numbers are influenced by downturns in mining, logging, and other ebb-and-flow industries.
Regardless of what DEED’s March report indicates, public and private efforts to meet workforce demands and to encourage economic development need to continue and even be stepped up in Duluth and in the region. A healthy local tax base and our local economy depend on those efforts being successful.
“We are constantly looking at ways to increase regional employment and regional workforce quantity and quality,” said Hanson, whose APEX is a regional, privately led force for economic development. “Celebrate business! Tell the positive stories! Share business needs with students, parents, and educators. We have loads of opportunities here in the region. We need to better match our training and existing skilled individuals with the great jobs we have available now and in the future.
“Let's collectively return to a narrative of the region being business-friendly,” Hanson further said. “Enough already about Dakota Access, ESST, flavored smokes, and plastic bags. Let's talk about the Northern Aero Alliance, AMFA, Career Pathways, and job fairs. We have so many resources and great employers. How can we feature them and celebrate success?”
City Hall must play its part, too, with the responsible use of tax-increment financing and other incentives and breaks to encourage entrepreneurship and jobs-providing business expansion. Attention can turn away from burdensome regulations and unpredictable processes that only drive away business activity.
“(Job creation) is a significant priority. One of the most important things that the City Council does is to use our influence,” Council President Gary Anderson said in an interview with the Opinion page. “It’s a big deal. … But we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we‘ve had, you know, huge changes in our community since the ’70s and ’80s. And we’ve had a great recovery from the Great Recession of ’08. We need to continue that.”
All the Northland working together — City Hall, APEX, everyone who chooses not to disparage our community but to speak and post about its positives instead, and others — can help to continue that. Then no report or numbers can be a bad look on Duluth.