Johnson seeks work requirement; Swanson wants ed czar

Jeff Johnson, a Republican candidate for governor, talks about a work requirement for welfare recipients during a news conference in Minneapolis. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Two candidates for Minnesota governor released proposals Monday they said would improve the state’s workforce as companies struggle to hire and retain employees.

Republican Jeff Johnson said he would push to add a work requirement for people on public assistance programs. DFLer Lori Swanson said she would create a new post in state government to better coordinate vocational education programs that feed industries expected to face skilled worker shortages.

Both Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, and Swanson, the three-term attorney general, are competing in Aug. 14 primaries that will determine whether their campaigns move on to the fall. Johnson faces former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the Republican race while Swanson’s opponents are state Rep. Erin Murphy and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.

Outside a shuttered workforce training center in north Minneapolis, Johnson said Minnesota’s reputation as having a strong safety net for vulnerable citizens needs to come with an expectation of work for those who are able.

“Not as a punishment, but because work is intrinsically good,” he said. “And it is the only-surefire way to pull people out of poverty, which is what we want for everyone.”

Johnson’s plan would require that adults receiving food stamps or Medicaid benefits be working, looking for work, training or volunteering. He didn’t provide details about how many work hours would satisfy the requirement or how it would be enforced.

Critics of similar proposals debated in the Legislature point out that people on public assistance often confront challenges — from transportation to child care — that make steady employment difficult. Some bounce between jobs or work and joblessness, or they don’t make enough to cover living expenses.

“We may have to bolster the system a little bit. I know there are some who say, ‘Well, we’re not going to save any money.’ To me this is not the short term saving of money. This is about long-term helping move people out of poverty, which in the long-term is going to save us money,” Johnson said. “If in the next few years we actually have to hire more people to make sure this works, I’m OK with that.”

Johnson also said state government needs to better coordinate worker training programs. And he called for changes to the school system that he argued would break cycles of poverty. He said he supports vouchers for parents to send children to private schools and more ways to shake up schools plagued by low student achievement.

Swanson explained her proposal in a new release accompanied by a heavily footnoted white paper describing where worker shortages are most severe and why current programs don’t go far enough in addressing needs.

She said as governor she’d appoint a “Career and Technical Education Czar” to be a senior adviser. That person would work with employers, labor unions and post-secondary institutions to identify high-need areas and structure training programs to increase the pool of qualified employees. She cited health care, information technology and construction trades as key fields.

Swanson also said licensing requirements for career and technical educators need a fresh look, aimed at expediting approvals.

“A four-year college degree is not the right path for every student. There will be tens of thousands of good-paying jobs in technical and career fields open in the next six years, and we need to make sure we are preparing students for these jobs,” Swanson said in a news release.  “My appointee will work with industry to make sure we are preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Johnson said he hadn’t had time to assess Swanson’s approach, but he offered an initial impression.

“I don’t know that another position in government is going to solve the problem,” Johnson said.

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