MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce Remarks: The University and Minnesota’s Workforce For Tomorrow

Monday, April 22, 2013

The University of Minnesota has great impact and touches just about every family or business in the Metro North Chamber’s area, and in this state. The U’s value to Minnesota is why I’m so proud to be the President of the University, and why I so enjoy my job.

In fact, the other day I was talking to my wife, Karen, about this. We’ve been married for 33 years. I said to Karen, “Honey, in your wildest dreams, did you ever think I would become the President of the University of Minnesota?” And Karen turned to me and, in her Tennessee drawl, very sweetly said, “Darlin’, I’m afraid to tell you, but you’ve NEVER been in MY wildest dreams!”

Of course, being the President of the U is not all laughs. It’s serious business. The future of our state—that is, Minnesota’s best and brightest young people—is literally in our hands. We are Minnesota’s most dynamic economic and cultural engine because we educate and prepare the work force of tomorrow. We have a mission to teach the next generation of leaders. We have a mission of research and to create new knowledge. And, we have a mission to tackle and solve the state’s most pressing social, health and environmental problems.

That brings us to the skills gap, an issue that concerns so many of you. It’s something we address every day in our classrooms, our laboratories, our academic advising centers, our job fairs, and in our community engagement with the state’s employers.

Often, this skills gap focuses on manufacturing, or the needs of some employers today or next month. I know our friends at MnSCU are focused on that. And our graduates can fill many of those in-demand jobs, and they do in many cases. For example, we know that 85 percent of our College of Science and Engineering, of CSE, graduates are employed in their field of study within three months of graduation.

But let’s carefully take a look at some of the words and concepts the Governor’s Workforce Development Council uses to describe the skills gap. By the way, I’m a member of the council. According to the Council, the gap must first be filled to ensure innovation in our state. And our graduates are prepared for that, trained for that. The Council says employees must have the ability to work with new technologies, in everything from social media to robotics. Our School of Journalism and Mass Communications and CSE graduates are educated for that. They must understand the global nature of the economy and the ability to solve complex problems. Our College of Liberal Arts remains our largest college, preparing critical thinkers, clear writers and 75 percent of all the foreign language majors among our state’s colleges.

I’m here to tell you that we at the University of Minnesota are preparing the workforce for the state’s employment sweet spots, to close the skills gap for the some of the most critical industries and needs in the state. On a landscape in which young people’s careers will change often during their work lives, adaptation and nimbleness are key. That’s why we at the University of Minnesota like to say we actually prepare students not only for the jobs of today, but for the jobs of tomorrow and the days after tomorrow. We educate students for jobs that might not yet exist, to understand technologies not yet invented, and to solve problems not yet known. The skills gap is not static. We are preparing students for what ever comes down the pike.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018—just five years away—70% of the jobs in Minnesota will require postsecondary education.

Minnesota ranks 3rd nationally in “postsecondary education intensity,” or the percentage of projected jobs in the state that will require four-year degrees. At the same time, Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the nation—48th—in the number of projected jobs requiring a high school education or less. This achievement gap is linked to an opportunity gap that drives the skills gap.

It’s instructive that Minnesota businesses have cited particular skills they seek in their employees. In a 2009 survey by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, here were the top five most important attributes employers sought in prospective employees. And maybe some of you took that survey. The attributes were:

  • ONE - Professionalism, that is punctuality, time management, and attitude, 
  • TWO - Self-direction, or the ability to take one’s own initiative,
  • THREE - Adaptability, or a willingness to learn, 
  • FOUR - Ethics and integrity, and 
  • FIVE - Verbal communication skills.

What’s fascinating about these employer needs is how we at the University educate and prepare our students to meet them.

We have seven student development outcomes that we seek to fulfill: Responsibility and Accountability, Independence and Interdependence, Goal Orientation, Self Awareness, Resilience, Appreciation of Differences, and Tolerance of Ambiguity.

There is NO ambiguity about our commitment to closing the skills gap. Our desired outcomes align perfectly with the demands of the state’s employers. We are committed to preparing the talent force for today’s work force, and the years beyond.

Metro North Impact

Now, let me turn to the impact we have in the Metro North area, and in the state. I’ll just focus on Anoka County for now, but this is reflective of our impact on just about every region of the state.

There are more than 15,000 University of Minnesota graduates living in Anoka County, including 330 MDs, 78 veterinarians, 238 pharmacists, more than 2,300 graduates of our College of Science and Engineering, and, yes, 150 of our Law School graduates. We have more than 1,200 University staff people who call Anoka County home, and who bring home more than $65 million a year in salaries from the U, spending it on homes here in the county, at stores, on taxes.

Meanwhile, our College of Science and Engineering works closely with Medtronic, Boston Scientific and Cummins, and has had recent outreach meetings for student recruitment with firms like Infinite Campus in Blaine, Remmele Engineering in Coon Rapids, and Pentair Equipment Protection in Anoka. Our Carlson School of Management is also engaged with many of the same companies, plus Steinwall Properties.

We just hosted on our Twin Cities campus the world’s largest medical device conference, bringing together researchers and industry leaders from around the planet. Medtronic and Boston Scientific were our two premier sponsors.

Statewide, the University of Minnesota awards 90 percent of all science, technology, engineering and math Ph.D.s in the state, 65 percent of all engineering degrees, 82 percent of all M.D. degrees, and 100 percent of dentistry, pharmacy and veterinary medicine degrees. Just as importantly, 66 percent of our students have at least one internship under their belts before they graduate.

You want a good example of the kind of future employee and citizen we’re preparing? Let me tell you about Sam Schreiner, of Lino Lakes, not too far from here, a Centennial High grad. Last year, I had lunch with Sam and some of his friends from our Honors Program. I’m not sure how he found the time.

He was in the marching band. He had already spent two years in the space physics department evaluating satellite data,

He had studied abroad in Shanghai, China—yes, he can speak a little bit of Chinese—and has twice been named a prestigious Astronaut Scholar, a grant given by former astronauts. He’s about to graduate this spring and received a National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship to conduct space vehicle design at MIT. An amazing kid, our very own rocket scientist! Not surprisingly, Sam was involved in our very active undergraduate research program.

We are the state’s only Research-1 university, driving the state’s economy, and creating the talent that so many employers require. We drive the state’s innovation agenda.

The University of Minnesota receives 98 percent of all federally sponsored research grants awarded to colleges and universities in the state of Minnesota. We are the nation’s 8th most active public research university in a state that ranks 21st in population. It’s no wonder that we also have 19 Fortune 500 companies in the state, too.

We attract the kind of employees those companies demand.

Research drives discovery, cures, medical devices, high tech inventions, food safety, transplant science, national defense products, manufacturing advancements….

Research drives jobs.


Right now at the Legislature, we are seeking a partnership with the state on a research initiative we call MnDRIVE.

We selected our areas of focus for the MnDRIVE program that purposely align our research and expertise strengths with the needs of the state and emerging or key industries in the state. MnDRIVE would help to fund research in the areas of food production, defense and protection. After all 20 percent of our economy is in agribusiness. It would fund research in robotics, a critical component of manufacturing.…

In water quality issues, important to agriculture, mining and industry, and public health.…

And in what’s called neuromodulation, a growing area in the medical device industry that addresses brain disorders from Alzheimer’s to addiction. As part of our legislative request, we are seeking $36 million over two years, and that would allow us to hire researchers and faculty, and it would leverage federal funding and philanthropy in those areas.

Our legislative request is also seeking $14.2 million a year to help us freeze tuition for two years for Minnesota resident undergraduates. We want the State of Minnesota to renew its historic investment in the University and in our friends at MnSCU.

State disinvestment

I’m an engineer, so let me draw a graph for you about Minnesota and higher ed funding. Imagine an axis here that is the year 1999 to 2011. And this other axis is the amount of money per capita that states allocate to higher education. For the United States, that number has declined about 23 percent, the consequence of political decisions and economic reality.

But in a Minnesota graph—in 1999, we were well above the national average, in the upper quartile, a place known for education, marking the Minnesota Miracle and the value we placed on education. Over that 12-year period, the decline in funding in Minnesota and for the U, wasn’t 23 percent, but 48 percent, putting us well below the national average of funding students in higher education and headed toward the lower quartile with states like Mississippi and Louisiana.

Let’s put it another way: 15 years ago, you showed up with a dollar, the state showed up with two dollars, and that’s how your tuition was paid. Now, you show up with a dollar, and the state of Minnesota shows up with…just…50 cents. That’s the shift of the cost onto students and their families.

If we could freeze tuition for two years…that would add up to about $2,500 per student. That’s a lot of money for most students and their families. And it would reduce their debt. We must keep this University affordable. It is my priority. And we’re on the verge of achieving that at the Capitol this session, the first increase in funding in eight years. I’m cautiously optimistic.

A commitment to affordability also relies on our commitment of responsible stewardship and what I call Operational Excellence. That’s our agenda to operate more efficiently and effectively as a University. Since I became President 22 months ago, we have reduced administrative costs, eliminated offices and consolidated services—saving millions. We will continue to do that. We’ve already pledged to redirect $28 million from administrative costs to our core academic missions over the coming biennium.

Unfortunately, some commentators in the media or legislators have deftly turned the conversation about the cost of education to focus only on the cost of administration. Administrative costs at the University are about 9 percent of our total budget, a number highly consistent with administrative costs at many nonprofit organizations. By focusing on administrative costs, those commentators avoid talking about the real driver of tuition increases: the unprecedented $140 million a year cut in the state’s investment in this University since 2008.

That state support, historically, was instrumental in making tuition more affordable.

As you know, we have a remarkable history of performing the first open heart surgery, inventing the first pace maker, discovering anti-AIDS drugs, and producing the state’s great leaders. I can’t guarantee that we’ll discover another life-saving medical technology that will come from the University of Minnesota, or that every kid will be Sam Schreiner. But I can guarantee you this: If we continue to disinvest in the University, if we don’t set our priorities right, if we don’t attract and retain the best students and scholars and scientists, we absolutely will not discover new things, and we won’t solve the state’s biggest challenges or work force needs.

Achievement gap

Before I close, let me turn to an issue that deeply concerns me - and that has great impact on job creation. We can’t fully talk about the skills gap without addressing the achievement gap or—another way to put it—the opportunity gap. We have an emergency on our hands.

Just a few sobering facts. Minnesota has a 45% disparity in the high school graduation rates between white and black students, the worst such gap in the country. Minnesota has the 2nd largest gap in the nation between African-American and white students on the 4th grade reading school. Ninety percent of African-American 4th grade students in Minnesota test below grade level on reading. And the science and math gaps are wider still.

By 2035 more than one-third of the citizens in the Twin Cities metro area will be people of color. If we are to prosper in the future as a state, it is incumbent upon all of us to close this achievement gap. I am the co-chair of Generation Next, a coalition of business and civic leaders working to accelerate the educational achievement of children from all economic backgrounds by identifying best practices to ensure students are prepared for success in college, work and life.

Also, at the U, we recently took our many programs in many colleges and coordinated our research and outreach efforts at the U in our College of Education and Human Development. We are deeply committed to advancing early childhood education. It’s a battle we can’t afford to lose. We all need to work very, very hard with our partners in K-12 education. It’s an academic problem. It is a business challenge, and, in the end, a jobs challenge.

Representative Jim Abeler

One other thing: the future of health care delivery systems in Minnesota has been in the news recently. From Mayo’s plan, to Sanford to Fairview, to the University’s role, and the positioning of our very important Medical School. We can talk more about all that in the q-and-a session that’s coming up. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the very constructive and thoughtful role that Anoka’s own State Representative Jim Abeler has played in this debate. I’ve deeply appreciated his input, and those of you in his district should be proud of his work on this critical issue.

The U is open for business

So, let me leave you with these reminders. We at the University of Minnesota have now one of the nation’s most active and successful Offices for Technology Commercialization among top research universities. For any of your companies—big or small—we are there to assist in research and development matters. We also have an Office for Business Relations, with a concierge service that allows one-stop contact for your companies and entrepreneurial consultation and incubation.

We’re here to help you access the resources, expertise and services your business needs to be successful. We at the U understand, embrace and are eager to fine tune our role as the engine of this state’s economy and as a driver in closing the skills gap.

I always like to quote Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin. He is a passionate supporter of research and development in higher education. Augustine said this:

“If you happen to find yourself on an airplane that is losing altitude, and if you have to throw out things to cut weight…the absolute last thing you would throw out is the engine.”

The University of Minnesota is the state’s economic engine.

We are open to business. The U is open for business. Thank you.

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U of M president addresses workforce issues