Neal St. Anthony
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Javier Martinez is an important part of the fastest-growing component of the Twin Cities labor force and a critical element in our economic future.

Martinez, 26, an immigrant from Mexico as a child, worked as a paper carrier and cleaned houses after graduating from St. Paul Johnson High School.

“I also was pretty good with computers,” Martinez said. “I could fix my personal computer. And I enjoyed troubleshooting and helping friends.”

Today, Martinez is a certified IT professional at a northeast Minneapolis small business, Our Family Wizard.

Martinez has doubled his income to more than $45,000, plus receives good benefits and a career pathway.

He and his wife own a house in St. Paul and are raising two children.

“I like a lot of things about my career,” Martinez said. “Great people at the office. I like to help customers. I also manage equipment and help manage our [IT] system.”

Martinez graduated in 2014 from the IT-Ready training program of CompTIA, the computer industry’s training program that targets nontraditional IT trainees who have demonstrated aptitude and interest but lack formal computer science backgrounds.

It’s providential for candidates such as Martinez and employers who are starving for skilled, trainable tech workers.

“Javier is very much like many of our graduates,” said Lisa Fasold, a director of the national program. “Most don’t have college degrees or are in careers without any real growth potential.

“While we certainly hope all our graduates keep expanding their knowledge throughout their careers, we know IT-Ready helps them jump-start their careers in just eight weeks, and through financial support from grants and corporate donors, students attend IT-Ready classes for free.”

And the metro needs workers such as Martinez as much as he needed a good, steady job.

The Twin Cities is at virtual full employment, at about 3.3 percent, particularly in high-demand tech jobs that go unfilled.

The economists tell us that the biggest threat to the state’s solid economic growth is the lack of trainable workers.

They forecast a shortage of up to 400,000 workers by 2022.

Many experts believe two critical components to filling the void will be upgraded skills and opportunities for people of color, and more immigrants.

The native Minnesota population is not producing enough kids and workers to sustain 3 percent economic growth.

The promising news is that, since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, the Twin Cities is seeing faster-than-market growth for minorities.

Between 2010 and 2016, employment in the “professional, scientific and technical services” category grew 25 percent to 32,084 jobs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

White employment increased by 23,654 jobs, or 21 percent. Minority employment, including immigrants, grew 73 percent to 8,430 jobs, underscoring an important trend in filling employer needs as well as closing at least some of the well-documented opportunity and income gaps for minorities.

The Twin Cities area population and economy is growing modestly, thanks in part to immigration. The metro area is home to about 337,000 foreign-born residents, or about 11 percent of the total population, mostly from Asia, Latin America and Africa, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

Critics call immigrants without documented skills a drag on the economy. But many economists refute this with studies that show immigrants, who tend to be disproportionately young, after some resettlement and education costs, are net contributors to the economy.

“Statewide, 72.1 percent of the foreign-born population [over 16] was participating in the labor force, which was actually higher than the native-born population [69.6 percent],” according to a DEED report in January.

That’s about 219,000 immigrant workers, or about 13 percent of the region’s workforce.

The tight labor market “translates into improving job opportunities for those who have struggled to find work in the past,” DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy said this spring.

The estimate for the 12-month average of black unemployment has fallen to a historically low level of under 7 percent. Similarly, the unemployment rate for Latinos is under 3.5 percent.

Many employers are all in.

The metro is the No. 1 city in America for the IT-Ready program, which places nearly 90 percent of graduates in good jobs that average $39,000 a year after graduation. More than 400 Twin Citians have been trained and placed since 2014.

Fasold credits that partly to former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who several years ago joined with business partners to create the Minneapolis TechHire program, including the industry-supported Prime Digital Academy and other training initiatives.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and industry groups, all to some extent, also have joined in more job-training and employee-employer matching efforts.

“Minnesota has the 17th highest amount of tech employment in the country and is one of the five fastest-growing tech markets,” Fasold said.

Martinez is a “dreamer,” a noncitizen brought to Minnesota by his parents at age 12.

About 800,000 immigrant kids nationally are at risk of being deported if President Donald Trump and Congress cannot agree on a policy that would put those dreamers on the path to citizenship or grant permanent residency.

Advocates also say we need common-sense immigration reform that allows a pathway to citizenship to undocumented adults who have lived in the United States for the long term.

“Minnesota is our home,” said Martinez, who admits to worrying at times. “I have never been back to Mexico.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.