Marina Lopez poses at her Lucerito’s Fashion shop in Mercado Central in Minneapolis on January 6, 2022. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Three years ago, I was honored to join the Walz-Flanagan administration as deputy commissioner for workforce development at Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. As the state’s primary workforce development agency, the department has a major influence on how Minnesota helps job-seekers and businesses grow. In my role, I brought a commitment to seeing that this economic growth was equitable for all Minnesotans. 

As I leave this work to take on a new role as senior adviser for democracy and human rights in the Biden administration, I would like to highlight the achievements and progress Minnesota’s Department of Employment has overseen in the past few years.

I came to state government from the private sector, where I had co-founded a tech startup and come to understand that disruptive innovation asks all of us to find new ways of working together. Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development and a former Google executive, challenged our agency to pursue new ways of serving Minnesotans. Its team is making real changes to our state’s workforce system by prioritizing partnerships with organizations that focus on the people who face the greatest barriers to employment. 

First, we’ve advocated for and received more state dollars to help Black, indigenous, and people of color who have been hit hardest by job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and who have faced systemic exclusion from our education and training systems. In 2021, employment and training programs at the Department of Employment and Economic Development received the highest state funding in history to distribute in competitive and direct appropriation grants across the state. Local organizations, nonprofits, and educational institutions apply for these funds to offer training programs and partnerships that lead to good-paying jobs. 

Second, we’ve focused on success for Minnesota workers through three areas of our workforce development system: streamlining our grantmaking process, expanding our outreach operations to connect with more Minnesotans, and offering innovative new online training opportunities.

In the last three years, the department improved the application process to make it faster and simpler to apply for grants. We reduced the amount of time it takes us to process competitive grants, allowing us to get dollars out into the community faster and thus increasing our impact. 

We made it clear what’s important in a grant application, doubling-down on our priorities of equity, innovation, and performance. Beginning this year, every organization that applies to the department for training funds must include its equity priorities, innovative strategies, and performance metrics. These changes help direct state funds to the organizations providing training and services to people most in need. To include the voices of community members in our  grant funding decisions, our grant review teams this year brought in nearly 50% community experts who joined our state staff in making recommendations.

One key to progress: Adding community representation to a state agency

We also established the state’s first assistant commissioner for immigrant and refugee affairs and brought on board an American Indian and tribal liaison to engage in meaningful work with these communities.

“The Department of Employment and Economic Development increased our community outreach and engagement to listen directly to job seekers and community leaders.”

Public service is about listening to the people with the greatest needs. The Department of Employment and Economic Development increased our community outreach and engagement to listen directly to job seekers and community leaders. Our multilingual outreach expanded, providing translations in print and video. I am grateful to community members who stepped up to invite us to their events and provided interpretation services so we could share our message and hear people’s stories.  

Workers look for help online—and that’s where to connect with them

When I was in high school, I watched my mom learn new skills with a goal of finding a job, and I saw that economic justice is a human right. It’s about strengthening families and anchoring communities to have the wealth and resources to grow. Often that means meeting people where they are – and today, people are looking for jobs online rather than going door to door. 

So we’ve focused heavily on modernizing our online workforce development tools. During the pandemic, our Coursera initiative provided a path to free online training and credentials for Minnesotans ages 16 and up. More than 12,000 individuals signed up and completed 13,000 courses. Many community-based organizations were able to use this tool to help retrain Minnesotans for their next jobs.

In addition, our CareerForce services transitioned to providing service virtually and by phone, providing needed support to job seekers. We’ve held hundreds of online webinars and job counseling sessions and have reached out virtually to more than 100,000 Minnesota job-seekers individually to help them find roles in Minnesota’s economy. All of this takes place on a new web platform we launched, careerforcemn.com, designed to guide job-seekers through their journey. 

I am impressed by the hard work of Minnesotans. Many are rebuilding their lives in the wake of this pandemic, just as my own family did as refugees in this country. As I leave state government service, I’d like to thank the extraordinary team at the Department of Employment and Economic Development who support those hard-working Minnesotans, leading the way to a more inclusive economy.

Hamse Warfa, the highest-ranking African immigrant in the Minnesota state government, is Deputy Commissioner for Workforce Development at the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED)....