Report: Minn. needs to close high-tech jobs gap

Guidant technician
A technician works on a defibrillator at Guidant's manufacturing facility in Arden Hills in this 2006 file photo.
MPR file photo/Jeff Horwich

Minnesota is lagging behind other states when it comes to creating new high-technology jobs, according to a new report out this week.

The Science and Technology Authority, created by the Legislature last year, issued the report this week. The group also notes that Minnesota actually lost high-tech jobs in 2009, the most recent data available.

Jobs in science and technology are among the best paid in the work force, averaging more than $70,000 a year. But it's a section of the economy where Minnesota lags other parts of the country.

"Many states have made significant strides in this area, and are surpassing us," said Rick King, a member of the Science and Technology Authority. "And I'd like to see us do a lot better."

The Science and Technology Authority was created to determine whether such a jobs gap exists, and how to address it.

The group's report calls for several steps to boost the state's high-tech jobs development. One would put programs in place to help ensure creative ideas for science and technology products are able to make it into the marketplace.

It calls for new links between the state's colleges and private businesses, to provide the academic brain power needed to develop those new ideas.

"Many states have made significant strides in this area, and are surpassing us."

The Authority is asking for $20 million for the next two years to fund those activities. Given the state's looming $6.2 billion budget shortfall, King says he knows this is a difficult time to ask for new spending. But he says along with cutbacks, the state also needs to put money into jobs creation.

"Take your medicine, but also prep for the future," said King. "And the future could be some kind of down payment on some things that can build some jobs, that get you out of the current hole that we've been in."

But some groups question whether the state should spend money on such new efforts. Phil Krinkie, who heads the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, served in the Minnesota House for 16 years. He says with the Legislature looking at ways to cut spending and balance the budget, any new proposals face tough going.

"Legislators during this upcoming session are going to be quite skeptical about future performances, future job creation, future positive economic results in the context of -- money's very difficult to find for existing programs," says Krinkie.

Krinkie says another hurdle for the Science and Technology proposal are the many new faces in this year's legislature. He says they're likely to be less friendly to the plan than the legislators who passed, and had a stake in, the original idea.

If the Legislature decides to fund the Science and Technology plan, its backers are promising big benefits. They estimate it could create up to 45,000 new high-tech jobs in Minnesota over the next decade. That includes occupations such as computer programmers, scientific researchers and engineers.

Glen Thuringer, who heads an economic development group in Worthington, thinks it's worth a try. He says on a much smaller scale, the southwest Minnesota city has had a science and technology jobs creation program in place for several years. The goal is to develop jobs in the bioscience area.

Thuringer says the program already has helped add several hundred jobs to the region's economic base.

"We know that giving support to companies does have an impact," said Thuringer.

But Thuringer admits his first thought when he viewed the Science and Technology Authority proposal was whether the state has money for it.

Authority members say their plan is a good one, something that will eventually return more revenue to the state budget than what they're asking for to get the idea started.

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