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Pawlenty, Worthington leaders discuss workforce shortage, ‘burdensome’ state regulations

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty speaks with city officials and business leaders during a visit to Worthington Monday. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)1 / 2
Gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty speaks with city officials and business leaders during a visit to Worthington Monday. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — During a visit with Worthington business leaders and government officials Monday, gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty stressed his goal of lessening “burdensome” regulations and requirements that give Minnesota a “competitive disadvantage.”

Local officials agreed, lambasting the cost of building in Minnesota as compared to its neighbors and blaming it on state regulations, particularly energy-saving rules and safety codes.

“If we’re mandating strict energy codes that raise the cost of a building, who is saving money on energy on a house they can’t afford?” said Steve Robinson, Worthington city administrator.

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said regulations make schools more expensive to build, thus making referendums harder to pass.

The high building costs also make investors less interested in building apartments in Worthington, where median incomes are 20 percent lower than the state average, said Jason Brisson, Worthington community and economic development director.

“Up in the Twin Cities, they can just ratchet up the rent because they have higher incomes to make it cash-flow,” Brisson said. “It’s the same thing with daycare, it’s the same thing with a movie theater.”

The nationwide worker shortage was the hottest topic of discussion. Blue collar industries across the country and in Minnesota cannot find enough workers to fully staff their operations, as younger generations increasingly migrate into white collar professions.

Pawlenty said high schools need to re-embrace career and technical training, rather than push students toward four-year degrees, which often come with lots of debt and no job guarantees.

“I think our counselors have to have a better real life understanding of what wonderful career opportunities the skilled trades offer, salary levels, benefit levels, and make sure they are promoting that as an alternative career path when they give advice to students,” said Pawlenty, adding that high schools should provide an alternative path to graduation that focuses on getting students a high-paying technical job out of high school.

Landgaard and Minnesota West Provost Jeff Williamson said they have been working together to get more kids interested in technical careers, but noted they’re losing students to the Build Dakota Scholarship Fund in South Dakota. The program offers full scholarships to students that decide to work in blue collar, in-demand jobs in South Dakota.

“The idea that young, working Minnesotans don’t want to live in South Dakota is just naive,” Williamson said, adding that Minnesota is not as effective in recruiting talent.

Besides working harder to encourage young students to become electricians and boiler operators, Pawlenty said public assistance programs could be looked at — as well as giving more legal leeway to companies that hire former non-violent offenders — as a way to increase the workforce participation rate.

“You’ve got to take people who are on the sidelines and bring them back in into the workforce,” Pawlenty said.

Immigration is also an avenue toward getting more workers, Pawlenty said, noting that he applauded the “crackdown on illegal immigration.”

Greg Raymo, First State Bank Southwest president and CEO, said Worthington is a strong model for how to integrate immigrants into the community and the workforce.

“Immigrants are coming here with a lot of entrepreneurial thoughts and ideas,” Raymo said. “We have been very successful in financing startup businesses in the community for immigrants, and they have been very successful business owners.”

Brisson said the city of Worthington is attempting to attract and retain workers by offering new amenities that improve the city’s quality of life.  

Pawlenty said he liked the strategy, noting that workforces are concentrating in areas where they want to live, which mostly includes large, metropolitan cities.

“Your creative thinking in this regard, I think, is going to be incredibly important,” he said.

Also during the meeting, Pawlenty said he wants to lower taxes, particularly for modest-income Minnesotans.

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle agreed on the need for lower taxes, but noted that local government aid (LGA) is an important tool for cities to be able to keep property taxes low, and said Pawlenty was “a little bit tough” on LGA during the terms he previously as governor (2002-2010)..

“I was tough on a lot of things,” Pawlenty said, indicating he wouldn’t go after LGA this time around, and only did so because budgets were tight due to the recession.

Another one of Pawlenty’s goals is eliminating state tax on Social Security benefits.

“We’re one of the very few states in the country that taxes social security benefits, and that disproportionately affects people with modest incomes,” he said.

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