DEED commissioner talks recovery

Published 7:44 am Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dan McElroy of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, speaks at the Development Corporation of Austin's annual meeting Tuesday at the Hormel Historic Home. --Eric Johnson/

Community members gathered Tuesday to discuss how Austin and the state are recovering from the recession that rocked the country.

Dan McElroy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), was on hand at the Development Corporation 2009 annual meeting to discuss how Austin’s economy plays into the bigger picture and how local businesses can prepare for a successful future.

McElroy said Minnesota has weathered the economic downturn better than others in the nation, largely because of the state’s diverse collection of industry sectors.

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Of the various sectors in the state, McElroy said economic success, in part, was due to Minnesota’s large food industry.

Dick Boerger, market president for US Bank in Austin, asks Dan McElroy of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development a question on unemployment numbers during the Development Corporation of Austin annual meeting Tuesday at the Hormel Historic Home. --Eric Johnson/

McElroy said Austin is a unique example of a small community home to a Fortune 500 food industry corporation — something that has helped the community stay on its feet and contribute to Minnesota’s success through the recession.

While Minnesota has faired well over the course of the past few years, it did experience tough times in 2008, when the state saw the housing market plummet. From there, a spiral effect went into place, with sectors depending on the housing market, such as those that cater to building projects, following behind. During that time, Minnesota’s employment rate dipped below the national average for three months.

Since then, things have begun to balance out, but McElroy said there’s still work to be done.

“We’re doing better, but we’re not doing good enough,” McElroy said.

Unemployment rates in Austin currently sit at 6.1 percent — with Minnesota rates at 6.8 percent.

In order to lower that number and create a sound economy, McElroy said four things need to be considered: the demographics of the workforce, technology, globalization and the importance of sustainable forms of energy.

With baby boomers approaching retirement age, McElroy said communities need to prepare and brace for a large portion of the workforce that will soon be retiring. That, paired with an ever-growing world of technology, means those in the workforce need to step up to take on the challenge and look to hire those who are also prepared to be life-long learners, capable and enthusiastic about utilizing new technology.

“When we’re green, we’re growing, when we’re ripe, we’re not,” McElroy said.

Competing in a global market is another emphasis companies in the state should have, McElroy said. While it may seem to be a daunting task, McElroy said it’s going to pave the way for a stronger state — and national — economy.

In terms of energy efficiency, McElroy said his concern is not in global warming, but in the preparation of the economy to function with sustainable energy. Specifically, McElroy said there needs to be an alternative plan to petrol fuels that are difficult to access and offer no opportunity to stand as an exportable good for the U.S. In order for the country to create a viable sustainable energy market, McElroy said schools need to put an emphasis on science, engineering, technology and math.

“We need more students taking more math and more science,” he said.

While McElroy largely praised Austin’s initiative to work with neighboring communities to improve the regional economy, he did say that Austin could do a better job of assisting those who are looking to start up businesses, specifically with those that have the potential to export goods outside of the region.

“You could do more with engineering and inventive mentoring aspects,” McElroy said in response to a question from the audience.

“I think that entrepreneurial incubator concept is something all communities should be involved with,” he said.

McElroy used Riverland College’s regional small business development program as an example of great work being done in that area.

Improving the quality of life in the area is an aspect of economic growth that is also vital for small communities like Austin, McElroy said. Those who contribute to the workforce are not just drawn to jobs, but to the quality of life an area could provide. That means looking at everything from trails, to housing, to shopping, McElroy said.

As for the future, McElroy said he’s not confident to predict what Minnesotans can experience 10 years down the road, but he said if Minnesota keeps up to pace with technology, sustainable products and prepares for a changing workforce, there’s room for success and growth for all those involved.