Randy Johnson

Randy Johnson is retiring after three decades with Workforce Development Inc. His efforts helped thousands of people find jobs.

For more than three decades, Randy Johnson's job has been helping others find a job.

He has been enormously good at it.

During a three-decade career at Workforce Development, the last 22 as executive director, Johnson stood at the nexus between people looking for work and employers looking for workers, using education and training to align the two.

Johnson, 66, retired earlier this month after 34 years at the employment nonprofit. 

During his tenure, more than 60,000 adults found living wage jobs and another 37,000 people on public assistance found transitional jobs. 

Government coffers were enriched by $1 billion, officials estimate, as people transitioned from welfare to work, becoming taxpayers instead of tax consumers, with his agency's assistance and job training. 

With his hand on the pulse of economic trends, Johnson has seen how much the job market has radically changed — and how the need for workers to keep their skills honed and relevant through continuous learning has become ever more imperative.

Don't call it a comeback

When Johnson first started at Workforce Development, economic cycles followed a predictable pattern. Recessions came, and workers lost jobs. But 80 percent of those jobs returned when the economy revived.  

Today, those numbers are inverted. Eighty percent of jobs that disappear never come back as a result of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. And the fear of having your job replaced through automation now rivals the terror people feel for public speaking, he said.   

"You could be hired for a job today, but within two years, if you didn't do anything to add to your repertoire, you're actually obsolete," Johnson said. "Continuous learning for incumbent workers is a growing need. It's something we're not yet dealing with very well."

With unemployment at 2.4 percent in Olmsted County, you might think that there would be less urgency for the work that Workforce Development Inc. does. Johnson doesn't see it that way.

There's an underbelly to the area's buoyant economy, he said. The low unemployment masks a persistent underemployment that lurks beneath the surface and that is an everyday reality for thousands of people. 

These are people who bounce from job to job — without benefits, without daycare options and adequate transportation. Their skills are not being upgraded, so they are falling further behind.

Johnson estimates that 25 percent of the area population lives a hectic, underemployed existence, but their statistical presence is obscured by the fact that they stay busy. 

Homeward bound

Another disturbing trend: More and more young people between 22 and 30 years old are choosing to live at home with their parents. That might have been understandable during the Great Recession when jobs were scarce. But that trend continues to grow years into an economic expansion. 

"I saw numbers that it's approaching 20 percent in that population range, and there's a whole lot of things that should disturb us about that," Johnson said.

Johnson worries that "we are less prepared, less resilient in many ways" for the next economic downturn, which the "tea leaves" suggest might not be too far away.

Yet, many of these issues are solvable, but it will require a collective approach by employers, non-profits and educators. 

"We've got employers who are so busy right now just taking care of business," Johnson said. "And they all have the No. 1 issue on the brain. They're running out of people. They're running out of skills. There are things we can do together to solve that issue, but they're busy making widgets." 

Johnson said the demographic challenges southeastern Minnesota faces are the same facing the state and the nation. With birth rates dropping and the Boomer Generation retiring, the labor market is shrinking.

Any hope of filling that void will depend on drawing people from outside the state. Right now, seventy-five percent of growth in the labor force comes from people migrating to the area. Many of in-migrants are people of color from other countries. 

"We need that. If you look around and everyone (you see) is a white person, that's a canary in the coal mine," Johnson said. "If you don't have people of color moving into your community — I don't care how small you are — you are dead." 

For Johnson, the proudest moments of his tenure were the innovations developed by his agency that opened up new pathways for training and careers to young people.

In the 1990s, Workforce Development helped fund and develop Rochester Off-Campus, now Rosa Parks High School. It recognized that for some students, a traditional school didn't work.

The agency was also instrumental in creating Bridges to Healthcare, a program that trains adults for heath care careers. Two-thirds of students in the program are people of color and all come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Johnson recalled his own bout of unemployment in the early 1980s. It was before computers. Job openings were written on scraps of paper. Job counselors would stick them in a draw and pull them out when the right job-seeker came along. 

"It was an awful deal," Johnson said. "I remember saying, 'God, if there was any way you could change the system and to really put the customer first, make better connections. There has got to be a better way.'" 

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Matt, a graduate of Toledo University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army. For the last 16 years, he has worked at the PB and currently reports on politics and life.