As we reported last week, the lack of sufficient net in-migration of new residents, particularly young people, to our region is one of the factors limiting workforce availability here in northeastern Minnesota. It’s a problem shared by many rural regions around the country. A number of studies have shown that Millennials are increasingly gravitating towards urban areas, where they perceive there is a wider range of economic opportunities and more of the types of amenities that they enjoy.
Such trends don’t have to be the death of regions like northeastern Minnesota, but they do suggest that we can’t keep advancing the same economic strategies while expecting different results.
Unfortunately, the political powers-that-be in our region remain deeply wedded to a one-horse strategy focused on mining even as the available evidence suggests that the number of jobs in that industry will continue to decline regardless of the fate of projects like PolyMet.
Robots and driver-less vehicles are quickly replacing actual miners, and that trend will only accelerate with time. The “miners” of the future will be computer programmers and systems operators working in facilities that could be located anywhere in the world. The mines of northeastern Minnesota could soon be operated by tech-savvy personnel living and working in the Twin Cities or even in China, leaving mining employment in our area limited mostly to contract mechanics and suppliers.
Trouble is, the political machine that has long run the Iron Range and has dominated the politics of northeastern Minnesota for decades operates in a near-symbiosis with the mining industry, relying on production taxes and the industry’s large, unionized workforce (and votes) to maintain their power and influence.
It’s been remarkably effective as a political force, but it’s been unable to adapt, or even recognize, the changes in the economy and culture that argue for new approaches. The machine is stuck in the status quo, resistant to new ideas, because the status quo is the basis for their power.
The current DFL legislative contest in District 6B is a case study of the machine in action. Rural Virginia resident Shaun Hainey is the DFL-endorsed candidate with a long history of community involvement, from co-teaching Sunday School, to working on early childhood education, to the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce to the Rotary Club.
Hainey doesn’t strike us as a machine politician. He supports PolyMet, but also sees real value in economic diversification. He’s a bit of a techie and he’d like to see us do more to attract software developers who are also outdoor enthusiasts. These folks make big money on average and can work anywhere there’s a decent Internet connection. There are already a few of them doing their thing up here, but the potential for growth is huge. Hainey is also a huge advocate for education and for more local food production, which he’s doing himself on his small farm in Pike Township where he lives. In addition, he talks about encouraging an entrepreneurial culture in our region, something that always seems to worry the Range machine, which prefers a sense of dependency on mining.
Apparently, others noted that Hainey wasn’t the usual Range politician. Shortly after Hainey won the DFL endorsement, Aurora Mayor Dave Lislegard announced he was entering the race and would run in the DFL primary. Lislegard has made a name for himself as a fierce advocate for all forms of mining and the machine quickly recognized him as one of their own, with endorsements from a slug of staunchly pro-mining local mayors, the steelworkers, and the building trades, each one heralded on the front page of the pro-mining Mesabi Daily News. The message has been clear: The machine has made its selection.
Of course, voters will have their own chance to weigh-in come the August primary. And they’ll need to ask themselves how well the status quo is really working for their families and their communities, or whether a few new ideas might be in order to begin to attract new people and new economic opportunities to our region. Is a relentless push to expand an industry (at the expense of alternatives) with an ever-declining workforce really the best way to invigorate the region’s economic prospects for the long-term? Is the constant refrain of economic woe that emanates from our region’s politicians really the best way to encourage young people to consider our region as a place to live and work?
Worthwhile questions all. We would encourage readers to give some thought to their answers.