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Lessons from past show way to future

A New Year and decade are upon us. With it come new challenges and obstacles for the people of Minnesota. To put our best foot forward, let's retrace the steps that have made Minnesota such a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

We current-ly find ourselves in the midst of the longest economic down-turn since the Great Depres-sion. Nationally, the past de-cade came and went with al-most zero job growth. Cur-rently, 250,000 Minnesotans remain out of work and econ-omists don't expect we will re-turn to pre-recession employ-ment levels for a few years.

Demographic changes fore-cast even larger challenges in the near future. Minnesota, a-long with the rest of the coun-try, is getting older. By the end of this decade Minnesotans over the age of 65 will outnum-ber K-12 students for the first time, which will create a seri-ous job shortage for skilled work.

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy, who has been Minnesota's demographer for 30 years, says this inevitable challenge is the largest we have ever faced. He cautions that our greatest risk would be to forget where we came from. He is right.

From its first days, Minne-sota has been an eclectic group of communities of dif-fering heritage and experi-ence. In the mid-1800s Ger-mans, Scandinavians, Irish, Polish, the French, and many others began settling in Min-nesota to build farms, cut tim-ber, and start families. Later on, Serb, Croatian and Euro-pean communities sprouted up on the Iron Range to mine iron ore. Even then, innova-tion drove our economic growth. Minneapolis millers created "bakers flour" and soon over 14 percent of the nation's flour was grinded in Minnesota.

The Great Depression and massive droughts hit Minne-sota hard, but we rebounded. After World War II industry picked up and Minnesota emerged as a center for technology. Medtronic opened in 1949 and others followed suit. In the 1970's state leaders recognized the value of innovative businesses and what harnessed their success -- skilled workers. They invested in education at every level and it yielded a significant return. For the last two decades, Minnesota has ranked near the top in education, health, and income and we have more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state.

Fast forward to the present. Although our economy has seen "ups and downs" in the past, we have never seen a permanent demographic shift. So how will we increase our economic productivity? Since there will be fewer wor-kers, the workers we do have must become more productive.

The good news is we are positioned better than many other states because we have done this before. By investing in our education system and in emerging technologies, we can increase the per-worker skill level of our workforce. Economists tell us the best bang for our buck will come from early education investments that set our students on a path toward success. In addition, we need to maintain our world-class K-12 schools and drive more students to affordable higher education where they can receive training for the high wage job fields that will soon see a job shortage.

It is critical we focus our educational efforts on all Minnesotans, including groups that for a variety of reasons have lagged behind in many educational benchmarks. We are all better off if workers of every walk of life are better educated. Our state demographer points out that current birth rate trends indicate that immigrants can and must play a critical role in addressing our job shortage of middle and high paying jobs in the coming generation.

Investing in our infrastruc-ture is easier said than done in our current political and economic climate. The record drop in revenue we have seen has created a serious and fun-damental budget deficit crisis. As Minnesotans get older, these budget troubles will worsen because there will be fewer workers spending fewer dollars while more state health care dollars are spent due to our older population.

There is no silver bullet. We need fundamental changes to the way the state of Minnesota does business if we are to provide the basic services like police, fire, and roads, while investing in our infrastructure and the future.

I fear the polarized nature of our current affairs will challenge our ability to make the significant changes that are needed. Clashes between different cultural or ethnic groups - state versus local, metro versus rural, Democrats versus Republican, majorities versus minorities -- are false barriers that impede our ability to address the challenges we share. Whether our ancestors came here from Germany like mine, or whether they moved to Minnesota ten years ago because of our sterling reputation, we share a common cause.

We want Minnesota to continue to be a great place. It will be if we learn from the Minnesotans before us who made it so.

Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, is a member of the Minnesota House.