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Transcript - episode 13: the importance of immigrants to Minnesota's businesses

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Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.

Christy Kallevig: Welcome to Vital Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality that explores the trends and topics important to communities and leaders throughout Minnesota. My name is Christy Kallevig, Extension educator for the Center for Community Vitality, and today we continue to explore Minnesota workforce challenges by visiting with Bill Blazer, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Business Development with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Welcome to Vital Connections On Air, Bill.

Bill Blazer: It's great to be with you, Christy.

Christy Kallevig: Most people might be familiar with their local Chamber of Commerce that is in their communities, but Minnesota has its own chamber of commerce. What do you do within your role for Minnesota Chamber and how do you work with communities?

Bill Blazer: The state chamber is a statewide version of local chambers and interestingly, there's kind of a division of labor, if you will, among the United States Chamber, which is the national organization; the Minnesota Chamber, which is the statewide association; and then the local chambers. They're probably 120 local chambers in Minnesota that are staffed. There are some that have purely volunteer leaders, but about 120 have staff. The local chambers tend to focus on supporting and building their local community, particularly their business sector. At the state chamber, our focus is on state policies and state legislation.

So we spend an enormous amount of time at the state capital and with the state's various regulatory agencies making sure that they understand the views of Minnesota businesses and what those businesses need in order to change and grow in our state. So think of the Minnesota Chamber as a statewide policy advocacy organization, and we've been around for about a hundred, almost 110 years. Interestingly, since the beginning we've been bringing the views, advocating the views of Minnesota business to our state policymakers.

About 15 years ago, we began a program called Grow Minnesota. Grow Minnesota is our economic development program and its focus is to work one-on-one with Minnesota companies to help them change and grow in Minnesota. So on the one hand, we're at the legislature advocating for all businesses and on the other hand, we're working one-on-one with Minnesota companies. In the course of a year, we will visit about 700 Minnesota businesses. We do that with the help of several local chambers from around the state, and of those 700 companies, we will probably provide some kind of assistance to about 200 of them.

Assistance for us is typically linking the company with a state local or federal resource that can resolve the particular issue that the company has presented to us. So we act kind of as a bridge to other resources. And at that bridge, we're helping a company resolve an issue and by doing that, nine times out of 10, we're helping that company to grow in our state. That's the whole purpose of Grow Minnesota. So like I said, the state chamber, we're an advocacy organization. And on the one hand we advocate for all companies through the work that we do with the legislature, but then we also have programs like Grow Minnesota where we work one-on-one with Minnesota businesses.

Christy Kallevig: So, how many folks do you have in your organization to meet those two different roles?

Bill Blazer: So our staff is about 35 people. And actually, Christy, in addition to the work at the legislature and the Grow Minnesota program, we also run two programs, one called Minnesota Waste Wise, and another one called Minnesota Energy Smart. Waste Wise works with companies individually to help them operate in a more environmentally sustainable fashion.

So we help them with their recycling programs. We help them use their resources more efficiently. Energy Smart does the same sort of thing, except its focus is on energy conservation and helping companies find ways to basically lower their electric bill by using electricity more efficiently or just using less of it, period. So, the staff of 36 covers the work at the legislature and then these programs that are designed to help companies one on one.

Christy Kallevig: That's very interesting. I didn't realize that there was so much going on. So that's great to learn about.

Bill Blazer: Yeah, it is really a year-round operation. Sometimes people think that when the legislature goes home, you know, our staff can kind of take a vacation or take time off. And the reality is that we're busy just about 365 days a year.

Christy Kallevig: Now, one thing too, that I want to point out is I've learned by doing these podcasts is that there are some organizations in our state that maybe only serve rural communities and some that only serve those in the metro, but your organization truly serves the entire state, correct?

Bill Blazer: Exactly. We have about 2,300 member companies and of those 2,300 companies, 60 percent of them are in the Twin Cities and 40 percent of them are in Greater Minnesota. Most of those 2300 businesses are relatively small, you know, eighty percent have fewer than a hundred employees. But in that other 20 percent are virtually all of the state's largest businesses. Our membership looks a lot like the state's economy. We're kind of a microcosm of the Minnesota economy.

Christy Kallevig: How does that microcosm look right now?

Bill Blazer: I think its greatest strength is its diversity. We're not, you know, certainly we have some leading industries, but our economic base is more spread out, if you will, than in many other states. So we have a strong natural resources component, so that would be agriculture and mining and forestry, but we also have a very healthy manufacturing sector. Our manufacturing tends to be pretty specialized, and I like to tell people our manufacturers are very good at making things to order.

So, if somebody needs a specialized piece of equipment or a part that's intricate and detailed and designed to do a very specific task, our manufacturers are great at solving those kinds of problems. So, we've got a strong manufacturing base and then we've got a number of financial services companies, our banks and insurance industry businesses, they're substantial and make a significant contribution to employment in Minnesota. Think about companies like US Bank or Wells Fargo or Allianz, the life insurance Company, or community banks, of which we have a pretty solid population.

All of those financial services companies roll up to a very significant chunk of the state's economy. And then, you know, beyond that you can get into professional services and tourism. Our professional services sector includes everything from lawyers and accountants to engineering and architecture and design firms.

What a lot of Minnesotans don't realize is that those firms are serving clients worldwide. If you go to a hospital in the Middle East, chances are it was designed by a Minnesota architecture firm. We have a long tradition of designing hospitals around the world, and the firms here continue that tradition. So, we've got a diverse economy and I think that that leads to solid track record in terms of growth and employment.

Christy Kallevig: That is great to hear. I know that you have the opportunity to travel the state a lot, as you said--those business visits that you're doing and coming out to meet with different community groups. As you travel around the state and hear from businesses, what are some of the issues that you see and hear about that are impacting our workforce?

Bill Blazer: Well, I think the number one issue is the ability of Minnesota companies to attract and retain the workers that they need, not just to grow, but to stay fully staffed with the work that they currently have. I probably visit maybe a hundred companies a year and there isn't a one that doesn't talk to me about the challenges that they have staying fully staffed. It is truly a statewide problem and it's one that our state demographer tells us isn't going to go away anytime soon.

It turns out that our birth rate has been lower for a number of years and at the same time, my contemporaries, the baby boomers, are all getting ready to retire, and you put on top of that a growing economy and the bottom line is we have a workforce shortage in Minnesota. We need more workers.

Christy Kallevig: We're seeing those new workers come to us in a variety of different ways. In a previous podcast, we were joined by Ryan Allen who talked about the migration and immigration of new members into our communities as well as to our workforce. As you take a look across the state, how do you see immigrants coming into our workforce and being a part of our workforce?

Bill Blazer: There isn't a business that I visit these days that is not relying to some degree on immigrant workers and workers contributing at every level of skill in the business and in every department. You walk in the front door and the receptionist might be an immigrant. You walk through the engineering department, you're going to see immigrants. You go to the production floor, you'll see immigrants. You go to the warehouse and the distribution center, you're going to see immigrants.

Same thing as if you visit a financial services business or go to one of the corporate headquarters of one of our Fortune 500 companies. Their workforce is becoming increasingly diverse and everything that we know about the demographic trends in our state, the jest that diversity is just going to increase.

As important as immigrants are to the state's economy, under the current immigration system, we won't likely get enough of them to stay fully staffed. So, there are other parts of our workforce that are underutilized. I'm thinking about disabled individuals or certain parts of the African American community or the American Indian community where the unemployment rates are high. Even if immigration continues at its current rate or increases, they'll still be plenty.

They'll still be job openings and plenty of opportunities and frankly, some urgency for Minnesota businesses to tap and to do a better job of employing folks with disabilities, American Indians, African Americans, veterans, older workers, particularly older women. That's on top of adding more and more immigrants to the workforce. It's a long way of saying, you know, we need a lot of workers or a lot more workers than we currently have, at every skill level.

Christy Kallevig: I appreciate you bringing in those kinds of untapped pockets of workers. How do you see businesses kind of building those bridges? I know you mentioned disabled workers, you mentioned, older workers, but there's even a segment of workers who are, who have been released from prison and are trying to enter the workforce and are veterans. How do you see companies tapping into those pockets of employees that do exist?

Bill Blazer: Well, they say, you know, necessity is the mother of invention. Well, in this case, the opportunity to grow, I think will do two important things. One is it will get many companies to rethink and restructure their hiring strategies so that they are more likely to include populations that they might have overlooked in the past. They will make special efforts to make their employment opportunities known in the disabled community, among ex-offenders, among American Indians. They'll look carefully at their applications and the kinds of requirements that they've established for somebody to come to work and to some extent rethink those based on the populations that they want to do a better job of inviting to work at their company.

So, I think we'll see some changes in hiring practices to sum it up. The other thing that'll happen though is that I think a lot of the companies that are looking for workers will rely more on the various social service organizations that were created and set up to get folks either into the workforce or back into the workforce. So, the organizations that work with ex-offenders to get them ready to go back to work and to become productive members of society. I think those organizations, they're going to see a lot more interest in the folks they work with from Minnesota businesses in the next decade or so because those ex-offenders could be a great source of workers for many Minnesota businesses.

But in the past when the unemployment rate was higher and there were more [workers], the birth rate was higher, employers didn't necessarily have to look at that population to stay fully staffed …the world has changed. So you're going to see employers looking more at … whether it's disabled individuals or an ex-offenders to just pop these pockets of high unemployment that are going to … they will increasingly be seen as resources.

Christy Kallevig: Are there any incentives that exist to promote employers to look at some of those untapped resources?

Bill Blazer: That's a great question. I don't know that there are specific programs, but there are many programs that are designed to help get people back into the workforce. To work with somebody who has a disability to get them work-ready, or to work with an older worker who may have been laid off from their previous job and now needs to be retrained. I think there are many of those kinds of programs. But I don't know that any of them are targeted on specific populations. I suppose maybe one exception might be some of the kind of refugee resettlement programs, which provide additional special resources to bring an individual and his or her family to Minnesota and then to help them get that open situated and find employment, but those programs benefit the individual as opposed to the employer.

Christy Kallevig: So, as we think about the makeup of our workforce changing, what type of impacts do you see in the communities where businesses are really reaching deep to find employees to stay staffed? What are some of the challenges and opportunities that you see within each community?

Bill Blazer: As I travel around Greater Minnesota, I see a lot of communities becoming increasingly diverse. That certainly presents challenges because you have folks in the community who may have different customs, certainly different religions, they may speak other languages in addition to English. There is no question that there needs to be some effort for everybody to get to know each other and to adapt. The new folks need to in some ways adapt to their new community and the folks who've lived in the community for generations need to be open to and to adapt to some extent to their new neighbors.

So, you know, there's kind of challenges on both sides, but one of the positives is lot of Minnesota communities, especially commercial areas, have seen a resurgence thanks to immigrants who moved to town and start working for a local employer and over time discover that they need a grocery store that caters to their community. Or they need or want a restaurant or an insurance agency where the agents all speak Spanish, something like that. Well, what that's done, it's helped to revitalize the downtowns of many Greater Minnesota communities, because turns out that immigrants are great entrepreneurs. So, they're not just adding to our economy as employees, they're also adding to the economy by starting businesses and they're starting businesses in communities or in neighborhoods that really do need a shot in the arm. I mean, just think about Lake Street in Minneapolis or University Avenue in St Paul, and think about what University Avenue looked like before all of the Hmong and Asian businesses got started on University Avenue, or think about Lake Street before the Latino and Somali businesses got started. I mean, these downtowns or these neighborhoods are so much more alive commercially because of the businesses that these immigrants have started. So that's another opportunity, not just the fact that the immigrants are kind of working in the local manufacturing or the local food processing plant, they are also starting businesses on Main Street.

Christy Kallevig: So, how do you see communities coming together to welcome these new immigrants into either the workforce or as an entrepreneur owning a business?

Bill Blazer: I think it unfolds differently in every community, but I do think that it is important for whether you're the newcomer or the family that's been in town for generations to recognize that the community is changing and that people have differences. Because my experience is that when a community creates an opportunity for people to get to know each other, they have an event at one of the local churches where the leader of the recently-arrived immigrants talks about their culture and their community and introduces some of the families that have arrived, that kind of event.

Then maybe the folks who lived there for generations talk about how they came to arrive in the community. Exchanging those stories and introducing themselves to each other, I think it makes everybody feel welcome, but it also just speeds the process where people get to the point where they enjoy each other's company. They enjoy the diversity. They enjoy their differences. I've seen that over and over again whether it's in neighborhoods in Minneapolis where I live or in a downtown commercial district, in Willmar or Tracy or, you know, Windom or Worthington or you pick it. Somebody has to kind of get the ball rolling and frequently, it's the local chamber.

The local chamber creates an occasion where people get a chance to meet. And actually what they do is they create occasions, plural, because it's not just one event that will allow people to get to know each other and begin to understand and celebrate their differences, there have to be multiple events, multiple occasions. Chambers of commerce are great at getting people together. So frequently it is the local chamber.

Christy Kallevig: I think that that's a great point. That it is coming together over multiple occasions and we know that when we take a look at social capital, especially with folks [who] are coming to us from a new country, a new culture, coming into our American way of life that it takes those repeated interactions in order to build good lasting quality relationships.

Bill Blazer: Exactly, and there are many communities that until this current wave of immigrants started arriving were struggling to keep their head above water, and the immigrants have brought a new vitality, a new vitality in the form of new people. Growth in the school-age population so more kids in the elementary and secondary schools, but also new vitality on Main Street, more people to shop in the local stores. So, it can be a real plus for many Minnesota communities.

Frankly, if there's an employer who's trying to grow and the immigrant population allows that growth, that's even better because one of the things we've discovered over the years is that when an employer or a business has the opportunity to grow and then can't get the workers that they need to have that growth, they're pretty quick to start looking for a new location for the business. So, they just don't put up with having an opportunity to grow and not having the resources to do it. So, the fact that we've got new people moving to communities all over our state and adding population, that creates a real incentive for the established businesses to stay in their communities and to feel that they can not only stay there, but they can grow there.

Christy Kallevig: I appreciate you bringing that point up Bill, because I don't think that we often look at it that way. I think that sometimes we take our businesses for granted. That they started in this community so they'll stay in this community. But I think that's a great point, that if the workforce can't grow with them when they themselves want to grow, it's hard to stay in that one community even though you might be very loyal to them.

Bill Blazer: Right, yes, exactly. There are businesses that have been in a community for generations and the business might now be sold. Now you've got a whole new set of owners who don't have that history with the community, they are even quicker to say, well, we can't get the workers here so we're going to try a different way, we're moving to another community. So it's really paying attention to the workforce. Not just the number of workers, but the way those workers are trained and prepared to go to work is just vitally important to Minnesota communities.

Christy Kallevig: Can you speak at all to some of the financial impacts that you see in Minnesota in relation to investing in immigrants and helping them to develop the skills and bringing them into our workforce?

Bill Blazer: There's no question that when somebody comes to Minnesota from another country, from another culture, with another language, with traditions that are different from ours, that it is going to require some investment on our part to get that person acclimated to Minnesota. So they've got to learn English. They got to have a place to live. They may have to update their skills. So, those are all public sector expenses for the most part.

Yeah, but what we've learned is that immigrants adapt pretty quickly and because that they are by and large, glad to be here and they want to succeed more than anything in the world; that over time, that investment that we made in helping them learn English and find a place to live and get training, that investment becomes very positive financially for the community.

They buy a house, they pay property taxes, they pay income taxes, they shop on Main Street. So there's no question that there's an upfront expense, especially when somebody comes here from a place that's dramatically different than Minnesota, but over time that equation turns around and they become financially a real asset to the community. An asset as a taxpayer, an asset as a consumer and a shopper and in the local community.

Bill Blazer: I can't give you exact numbers, but a variety of case studies have been done where we've tracked immigrants over time. The one that I'm most familiar with is one that Bruce Corrie, a professor at Concordia University did, where he tracked the Hmong population for about 30 years and then looked at their socioeconomic status in 1980 and then again in 2010, and one indicator after another showed just dramatic improvement. Their income, their rate of home ownership, their level of education. All these things went up, [and] went up dramatically. They very quickly became full participants in our economy and our communities.

Christy Kallevig: Before we came on air, you mentioned the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition. What can you share with us about the work that they do and how you as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce connect with them?

Bill Blazer: There are about, I want to say five or six trade associations that approximately 10 years ago created the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition. The purpose being to work for comprehensive reform of our federal immigration laws. What we all discovered is that the laws that we're currently working under are badly out of date, particularly those laws that govern the number of people who can enter the country in order to work. So we created the coalition to work with our US senators and our representatives in Congress to try to change those laws. If your listeners want to learn more about the coalition, they can go to mnbic.org; that's our website. The trade associations that participate are the Midwest Food Processors, the Minnesota Aggregate Growth Council, the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, Minnesota Milk Producers, and then Hospitality Minnesota, which is the association that represents our hotels, motels, restaurants, and I believe resorts and campgrounds.

Christy Kallevig: So coming together as a coalition, what types of things are you working towards right now in regards to immigration reform? I mean, clearly, it's a hot topic between what has been said with the current administration and what our business community is saying. So what are some of the things that you are currently involved in?

Bill Blazer: Well, we are working with our delegation to try and pass a permanent fix for the DACA program. That's the program that was designed to provide permanent status in this country to individuals who were brought here when they were very young and really didn't have any choice in whether or not they stayed in their country of origin or came here. They were brought here by their parent or guardian when they were three years old or five years old.

Frankly, many of these individuals are now adults. They really know no other country than this one. So we're working hard with our congressional delegation to try to pass legislation that provides a path to permanent residency for those individuals. We're also working to try to update and improve the visa system. Particularly as it relates to agricultural workers, individuals who work in the hospitality industry, and then also those who work in certain technical fields, engineering and computer sciences, chemistry, biology, those kinds of things.

The systems for admitting foreign workers in those professions are just badly out of date. I don't think we've really tuned them up since 1980 and the economy has changed dramatically since then. So they badly need to be reshaped.

Christy Kallevig: Absolutely, and that's a big job. So, thank you for taking that on.

Bill Blazer: It is a big job and I wish I could tell you that we were making more immediate progress, but for whatever reason, congress is more challenged getting this work done then we would have expected. They're making this is a lot harder than at least the business community thinks it needs to be.

Christy Kallevig: Interesting. As we start to wrap up our conversation here, Bill, we know that good businesses are essential to a vital and vibrant community. Just as we know that having good workers is essential to making sure that our businesses are strong and that we have those growing vibrant communities in which they're located. What can we do to support the work that you are doing at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, that our local chambers of commerce are doing to make sure that we do have a vibrant growing economy in Minnesota?

Bill Blazer: So, I'd say two things. One is if you have an opportunity to talk to your representative in Congress or one of our two US senators and explain to them the urgency of immigration reform, and make it clear that you're counting on them to fix what is a badly-broken and out-of-date system. Then secondly, I would urge people to take advantage of opportunities that are created by their local chamber or their local church to meet and to visit with the new folks in town. The local chamber will organize events. Many churches and other religious institutions have organized opportunities for people to get to know each other. I would urge Minnesotans to take advantage of those opportunities to get to know your new neighbors and learn about their culture and tell them about yours so everybody enjoys each other's company.

Christy Kallevig: Thanks, those are great pieces of advice, Bill. Once again, I want to thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to join us to be on this podcast and for all the great information that you shared with us.

Bill Blazer: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Christy.

Christy Kallevig: Thank you to Bill Blazer from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for joining us for this episode. To learn more about the work that Bill and his colleagues are doing at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce visit their website at mnchamber.com. You can also learn more about the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition by visiting www.mnbic.org. We will continue to feed you information on this important topic and others that impact communities at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality web page. You can check this out at extension.umn.edu/community. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on new research and resources for communities and those who lead them. We hope that you've enjoyed this episode and will join us again for another Vital Connections On Air.

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