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GOP picks 'exceptionally average' state

Roger Leary hangs a Republican National Convention banner outside the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Saint Paul will host the convention next week.

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KAI RYSSDAL: It's been a whirlwind 24 hours in the presidential campaign. The big speech by Barack Obama last night at the Democratic Convention in Denver, then a smaller but equally important speech by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin this morning at a rally in Dayton, Ohio. John McCain gave everybody something to talk about with his choice of Palin as his running mate. And he pretty much guaranteed lots of buzz when the Republicans meet Monday in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The GOP has chosen a backdrop for its convention that reflects some of the same economic problems the country, and the new president, are going to have to deal with. From Minnesota Public Radio, Annie Baxter reports.


ANNIE BAXTER: If you know anything about Minnesota, it might be from the public radio program "A Prarie Home Companion." The show's host, Garrison Keillor, tells stories about a mythical town called Lake Woebegone -- it's a kind of shorthand for Minnesota.

GARRISON KEILLOR: That's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

For years, Minnesota did earn that above-average standing, in areas like high school graduation rates, growth in per capita income, and employment numbers.

State economist Tom Stinson is proud of that. But he'll also tell you, maybe a little reluctantly, about Minnesota's big shortcoming -- an aging population.

TOM STINSON: Now, Minnesota is such an exceptional place that you hate to say that it's average in anything, but Minnesota is so average with respect to age structure that it's, well, exceptionally average.

Minnesota's population is getting old, just like the nation's, and that's going to affect the workforce.

In this decade and the next, Minnesota officials project that for every four newly created jobs in the state, there'll be nine jobs vacated, largely by retirees.

Stinson says that's workers are going to be in much shorter supply.

STINSON: These are big problems and they're not problems specific to Minnesota. Minnesota's economy and the U.S. economy, needs to be prepared for really massive changes, changes on the scale of demographics that we haven't ever seen before that are coming with the retirement of the baby boomers.

In some businesses, the future is already here. This company, Checker Machine, makes components for other companies. Chief Operating Officer Dave Fiedler says lots of Checker's 60 or so workers are nearing retirement, and he's worried.

DAVID FIEDLER: I have a little chart that I put together for you. You can see our age group from 55- to 65-plus, we have about 32 percent of our workforce. And so you can see in the next 5 to 10 years we're going to lose a majority of our work force of talented people. And if you look at the top of the chart, our 20- to 30-year-olds are only 6 percent of our workforce.

Fiedler wants the government to beef up school instruction so that high school grads can do the math and programming that Checker machine work requires. But Fiedler's also offering older workers part-time work to retain them. And he's got a training program to recruit workers.

Business leaders say retraining of adult workers is critical to the future workforce.

TRINA JOYCE: I didn't grow up with a computer.

Trina Joyce is an unemployed social worker in her 50s. During a class break at this Minneapolis job resource center, she said one reason she's out of a job is her lack of computer chops.

JOYCE: I don't have the typing skills or the computer skills, so that's something I need to work on.

Much less-skilled workers pass through job centers like this. Some centers are piloting the National Work Readiness Credential. Centers assess workers on reading and math. A coalition of businesses, unions, and state governments wanted to help employers identify qualified talent and give workers a leg up in their interviews.

Bill Blazar, a vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, says businesses also need better access to immigrant labor. He says many Minnesota business owners -- like others nationally -- favor a new, more flexible approach.

Bill Blazar: I think many Minnesota companies would be employing more immigrants if they were confident that they were doing that in compliance with federal and now increasingly state law.

Getting more and better workers ready for work, however you do it, is something that economists and business owners here and around the country say the government needs to prioritize. But with more pressing problems, like inflation and unemployment, we'll see how prominently the future workforce figures in this year's presidential campaigning.

In St. Paul, I'm Annie Baxter for Marketplace.

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