Sunday, July 22, 2012 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
We all remember how the year 2000 was once emblematic of the future. “In the Year 2000” was a phrase that meant “When we figure out our problems and enjoy a prosperous tomorrow.” The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” showed us commercial flights to the moon and remarkable missions to Jupiter. Now, in 2012, all the year 2000 means is a time when the economy was better than it is today. Is 2020 the year we get to Mars? Is 2030 when the Iron Range is finally a secure, self-sustaining economic region? We shrug, and say “maybe.”
I’ve talked often of the economic changes going on here on Minnesota’s Iron Range as part of a larger shift in the workforce. Range mining jobs pay better and are more secure now, but there are fewer jobs available. Further, the strain on the middle class in this country continues to reduce the positive effects of a good salary, causing all kinds of political, institutional and social instability.
Beth Bily of Business North recently wrote about mining jobs in her publication as well as the Scenic Range News Forum. According to state employment data, mining jobs paid $356.9 million in 2011, up $70 million from the year 2000. However the impact of cost of living increases and spending power decreases makes that higher figure actually less potent.
One of the biggest reasons for this is the loss of raw jobs. Bily reports that an average of 4,245 miners did the work that 5,599 did in 2000. Remember, this is 2000, after the collapse of the 1980s. Nearly twice as many miners worked the ore formation in the late 1970s, albeit for less money.
Bily’s story speaks of new mining as one possible way we could see an increase in mining employment, but the 300 jobs at Essar and the 200 more that are possible at PolyMet (should PolyMet be permitted, which is not yet complete) would fail to seriously close the gap.
Around Hibbing one can easily find yard signs that read “We Support Mining” all over town. The other side of the sign reads “Mining Supports Us.” That’s a lovely sentiment, because mining really is a major part of the economy. But all the hand-wringing in the world over mining jobs won’t create the economic transformation necessary for the area to completely finish its recovery from the population and job losses of the 1980s. Not even close.
Economic development that relies on mining alone is economic development for some, but not for all. The region as a whole region needs more. Scores of low skill, undereducated workers are being churned out by our increasingly uncompetitive schools. The means to help these folks do better at community colleges is rapidly evaporating with rising tuition and reduced aid. Service jobs crop up to support the tourist and mining economy, but these wages and shifts remain woefully inadequate to raise families.
I’d like to print up some signs. “We educate our students.” “We believe in our future.” “We are in this together.” In short, “We Support Ourselves” on one side and “We Support Each Other” on the back. The Iron Range is reputed to be a place of smart, independent people. Let’s prove that. We are the keepers of a land of forests, water and resources. My goodness, we are better positioned than anyone gives us credit, ourselves included.
First you’ve got to train the workers. Then you have to create means of income and an environment supportive of entrepreneurship. Then you’ve got to bolster the public schools so that students 12 years from now are ready to compete at a world class level. This is difficult and quite likely expensive. Both innovation and sacrifice are necessary. But no candidate, plan or scheme that avoids these goals is worth a handful of taconite pellets. Democratic solutions, Republican solutions and independent solutions are all welcome. The absence of solutions is inexcusable.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.