This joint commentary is by University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel and Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra.

Minnesota is facing challenges unlike any time in our history. In addition to the ongoing public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities and created persistent economic hardship for Minnesota workers, families and businesses.

While Minnesota’s unemployment rate has fallen since its record 9.9% peak in May and remains below the national average at 4.6%, the state has 184,000 fewer jobs now than in February. Moreover, economic disparities remain stark for communities of color across our state. The unemployment rates for Black Minnesotans (15.4%) and for Latinos (9.6%) are much higher than for white Minnesotans (6.3%). Meanwhile, employers are facing a constricted labor market: 109,000 Minnesotans have left the labor force in the past year, largely driven away by COVID-19.

The pandemic is accelerating the adoption of technologies and automation at a rate many predicted would take years to occur. As the pandemic economy further disrupts the labor market and increases demand for a more skilled workforce, we must transition to an economic recovery that ensures equitable access to jobs for all workers. Over the next several decades, Minnesota’s demographics will continue to shift, with 70% of population growth occurring among communities of color. Meeting the workforce needs of the state will increasingly depend on increasing access to higher education for Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. Eliminating educational disparities at all levels is critical to providing Minnesota the talent it needs for continued economic growth.

It will take hard work and a commitment to professional education and training to repair our state’s economy and rebuild our workforce. When the Legislature convenes next month, facing mounting budgetary stressors triggered by the pandemic, lawmakers will be looking for the most cost-effective way to bolster Minnesota’s workforce for the present, and future. We have a straightforward suggestion for how to do it: Let Minnesota’s colleges and universities take the lead.

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As the state’s public higher education systems, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State are prepared to tackle the difficult task of helping our state recover from a pandemic-induced recession — and on the scale that’s needed. Anchoring communities around the state, we fuel local talent pipelines to industries large and small, while cultivating the next generation of professionals and leaders.

We see how an investment in workforce development pays off for the state. The 800,000 Minnesotans who have graduated from one of our campuses are meeting workforce needs for employers in all sectors, contributing nearly $550 billion in additional earnings to the state economy over the course of their careers. Our graduates are on the frontlines during the pandemic. Doctors, nurses, and other skilled medical professionals treat and care for the sick, while researchers develop new treatments and therapies — and, soon, vaccines to head off this virus once and for all.

The foundation to a strong economy is a skilled and resilient workforce. Our institutions power Minnesota’s economy by conferring degrees in high-demand fields in every corner of the state. The U of M awards degrees in nearly 100 in-demand professional fields, graduates over 80 percent of all health care workers in Minnesota, and launches new companies and industries to fill Minnesota’s current and future workforce. Minnesota State colleges and universities provide multiple on-ramps to training, education, and reskilling opportunities for high-skilled and technical careers, partnering with businesses to align programs to meet changing job skills and workforce demands. Both institutions, with separate missions, have a shared responsibility: moving our state forward.

State funding in higher education is a strategic investment in Minnesota’s future and long-term economic vibrancy. Every degree and certificate equips another Minnesotan with the knowledge and skills they need to secure a high-paying job. With over 400,000 students across Minnesota, we’re building a highly-trained and capable workforce that will be ready to face our post-COVID reality.

Minnesota needs a strong commitment to accessible, equitable workforce development, and the U of M and Minnesota State are prepared to deliver. There is no denying lawmakers have a limited set of options to solve a unique set of difficulties. But with support from Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, and the State Legislature, Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will help power the economic recovery.