Lori Sturdevant
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One statistic has been House Republican Minority Leader Kurt Daudt’s mantra this session: 49 percent of this state’s working adults are underemployed — that is, working at jobs for which they are overqualified, and presumably earning smaller paychecks than they once expected.

Can that be? Nearly half of this state’s employed people are educationally prepared for better jobs than they’ve got — even with the state’s unemployment rate down to a nearly recovered 4.8 percent?

“Actually, in 2012 it was 53.4 percent,” Steve Hine, research director at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said of the underemployment rate. “It’s gone up every year we’ve looked at it.” That’s since 2009, when he first had access via the U.S. Census Bureau to qualifications data for 820 job categories and the educational attainment of the Minnesotans who hold those jobs.

For example, by his calculations, 282,648 Minnesotans with bachelor’s degrees worked at jobs in 2012 that required only a high school diploma of applicants. Another 60,580 four-year college grads worked at jobs for which not even high school completion is required.

In all, Hine said, three out of five Minnesotans with bachelor’s degrees hold jobs that don’t require one. Some of them undoubtedly love what they do. But that stat still sounds to me like a lot of unfulfilled dreams — and like an economy that’s not healthy.

Hine put that latter point in Economese: “It’s indicative of more labor market slack than the general perception based on unemployment rate trends would suggest.”

Daudt translated: “While government has a surplus, Minnesota families don’t.”

My hunch is that Daudt has found the sore spot on Minnesota’s body politic. Here in the work ethic capital of the nation, folks are employed again after a recession that spiked the state unemployment rate to 8.3 percent in early 2009. But the guy with a graduate degree is selling suits. The young man with a fine-arts degree is behind a rental-car counter. The early-ed teaching assistant has been looking for a year for work that better aligns with her college majors. The office administrator who graduated summa cum laude longs for more intellectual challenge.

Those are real people who leap into my mental frame when I hear “underemployed.” If the problem is as pervasive as Hine says, the word must conjure the faces and frustrations of real people for most Minnesotans.

“They’re working at jobs at a lower income and a lower skill level than they are accustomed to,” Daudt said. “The job market is nowhere near what it was at its height.”

That assertion likely rings truer to most listeners than the headline on a March 26 DFL release: “Minnesota’s cold weather continues, but so does the hot economy.” It touts the 140,000 new jobs created since Gov. Mark Dayton took office in January 2011, and says that Minnesota median household income continues to outpace that of the nation as a whole.

It does. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, Minnesota’s median household income was also $6,000 less in 2012 than it was at its peak in 1999.

These are stats that reveal considerable potential for political gain or loss. The party that can most convincingly speak to the aspirations of Minnesota’s underemployed is bound to have an edge in 2014 and beyond.

Acknowledging economic reality would seem to be an essential first step for politicians seeking to sell voters on their ability to improve it. Daudt, a former Isanti County Board member, demonstrates a firm grasp of that formula. At age 40, he’s a rare bird who flew into a leadership suite after only one term, and who retains some of the idealism that new legislators often bring, then lose.

Daudt’s challenge as his party’s state House campaign general is to take the next step. Republicans must offer a plausible remedy for underemployment — or at least a better one than DFLers are peddling.

DFLers have the Legislature’s majorities, which means they have bigger megaphones. They also have more policy options to tout. Republicans seldom stray far from tax cuts as their preferred prescription for any ailment. DFLers are freer to promise more funding for education, economic development and infrastructure, and a higher minimum wage.

But with underemployment this high, both parties’ messages could use adjustment. Voters have grown skeptical about tax cuts for “job creators” when good jobs don’t get created as a result. They’re wary of more money for education when college-degreed people are making coffee-shop lattes.

They like hearing that Minnesota is doing better than other states — and it is. But home-state pride won’t pay the rent.

A political pitch aimed at the underemployed would talk about how Minnesota will make it easier for working adults to obtain career counseling and retraining. How it will make the first pass through the E-12 system a surer foundation for 21st-century careers. How it will correct the pathetic shortage of guidance counselors in the state’s high schools. How it might entice businesses to create not just more jobs, but better jobs. And how impediments to full participation in the workforce ­­— by parents of young children, or pregnant women, or caregivers of elderly family members, or the disabled, or people seeking a second chance ­— will be flattened.

One more thing Daudt’s been saying a lot is that politicians often approach problem-solving backward: “We don’t start with the organic problem and work toward a solution. We always start with the solution and try to convince everybody that’s the answer to their problem.” He says he wants to change that. For the sake of Minnesota’s underemployed, I hope he’s not alone.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.