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Public Statements

Sen. Franken's Speech to the Rochester Chamber of Commerce

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Thank you! I want to thank John Wade for the invitation to join you all today, and for his leadership.

I'm glad we have a chance to get together today. We all have a big job to do together.

Families and businesses here in Minnesota and around the country took a real beating in the recession. And we have a lot of work to do to restore the prosperity we lost in those difficult years.

But we also have to regain our footing as a nation. We have to restore the sense that America is a place where - no matter where you start out in life - you have a chance to find a meaningful job or to build a business, a chance to own a home, raise a family, save for retirement, and leave something better for the next generation.

We all have a role to play in addressing these challenges. And it's disappointing when you see people pointing to real differences in perspectives between Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, or business leaders and the labor community, and blowing them up to make it seem like our country is irreparably divided - that just because we don't all think exactly the same way, we can't all work together.

If Martians landed tomorrow and decided that, to get a crash course in how America works, they'd watch a day of cable news, they'd conclude that we were screwed. And if we were really as divided as it seems in Washington, we would be screwed.
But you and I know better. And that's why, even after we've been through some hard times, we have hope for our state, and for our country. That's why we can get things done.

Minnesotans understand that we don't have to follow anyone's ideological playbook to rebuild our prosperity. We simply need to follow our own example. Because we've been through hard times before, and we've bounced back.

Today, our national debt is almost equal to our gross domestic product. That's scary. But after World War II, our debt was 121 percent of our gross domestic product. To be fair, we had something to show for it: We had won World War II.

But the point is that, not too long ago, we were tested. And we bounced back from those hard times. By 1981, our deficit was down to 32.5 percent of GDP.

Now, if we're going to do that again, we're going to have to make cuts. Some of those cuts are going to be easier than others. For instance, defense spending doubled over the last decade - partly because we were fighting two wars. When we're not fighting two wars, I have to think we'll find that some of that spending, we don't need anymore.

I also don't think we need to keep spending billions on subsidies for the oil industry. Not because the oil industry is bad, but because they are doing just fine without government help.

We're also going to have to make hard decisions and do things we don't like. I know I've voted for cuts in programs I really like. It was not fun.
But we can't just cut our way out of this - just like we can't just tax our way out of it. We have to do this in a balanced way - and that balance has to include growing our way out of it, too. That's what we did after World War II. We had three decades of incredible growth and built the strongest economy in the history of the world.

And we didn't just grow. We grew together.

Between 1947 and 1977, wages for the top fifth of workers grew by 99 percent, and wages for those in the bottom fifth rose by 116 percent. I know that's hard to believe. The wages of the bottom fifth grew more than the wages of the top fifth. Really. That happened.

That's the kind of growth we want - the kind where everybody can do well if they work hard, and where everybody has a stake in everybody else's success.

In those years, people in the middle did well, and that was good for the people at the top - because it meant more customers for the things the people at the top were producing and selling. And, also, more customers for the things that the people in the middle were producing and selling.

And when people at the top did well, it was good for people in the middle and at the bottom. Because it meant more businesses growing and more jobs and more innovation. And it meant more tax revenue to invest in educating our kids, building our infrastructure, developing new technologies - the things that keep the economy strong for everyone.

And it also meant we could afford to strengthen our social safety net, so that the people at the bottom at working their way into the middle class.

That's the kind of bounce-back we're looking for today. That's why I talk about investing in infrastructure - like we did when we built 40,000 miles of highways back in the 1950s. That's why I talk about investing in innovation - like we did when we won the space race.

But when it comes to bouncing back from tough times, there's no trampoline quite like education.

I'm on the Education Committee in the Senate. And there's a statistic used by economists to measure how educated a country is - the percentage of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a college degree.

If you look at this statistic back in 1976 - so, people born between 1942 and 1951 - two in five Americans had a college education. That's not everyone, obviously, but it led the world. Canada was a relatively close second. Everyone else was competing for a distant third. We had the strongest economy in the world because we were the most educated country in the world.

Our national commitment to education included things like the G.I. Bill (which helped my mother-in-law, the widow of a World War II vet, go to college) and Pell Grants, which helped my wife Franni and her three sisters go to college.

But it also included a common understanding that an educated population was in our national interest.

I was born in 1951. And in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Suddenly, the Soviets had nuclear weapons and were ahead of us in space. We were terrified.

I was six when Sputnik was launched. My brother was 11. Neither of our parents had gone to college - in fact, my father never graduated from high school. But they understood that our generation had been challenged, and that education was the key to meeting that challenge. So our parents sat us down in the living room in St. Louis Park and said: "You boys are going to study math and science to beat the Soviets."

Now, I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old.

But we were obedient sons. And so Owen and I studied math and science, and we enjoyed it. And, wouldn't you know it, my parents were right. We beat the Soviets. Owen and I beat the Soviets. You're welcome. And we became the first in our family to go to college.
Fast-forward to 2011, however, and look at today's 25-to-34-year-olds - people born between 1977 and 1986. You'll see that 41 percent of Americans in that age bracket have a degree, right around where we were 35 years ago.

But over the course of those 35 years, Canada has passed us by. And so has South Korea. And so has Japan. And so have Norway, and New Zealand, and the U.K., and Australia, and France. In fact, we've fallen from first all the way down to 16th.

People look back at those days after World War II, and remember a time when you graduated from high school and then either went to college or went to work. But the options for those who don't go to college today are few and dwindling.

By the year 2018, 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require some kind of post-secondary degree or credential. But, today, only 40 percent of the Minnesotans who are going to have to fill those jobs have that degree or credential. That's not a lot of time to make up an awfully big gap.

When I go around the state and talk to employers, the single biggest thing they tell me they need is a workforce capable of handling the jobs of the 21st century. I understand folks from Ellingson Companies may be in the audience, a company that is growing rapidly - congratulations!

Finding qualified employees is a particular problem for our manufacturers. The Department of Employment and Economic Development in the state, DEED, recently did a study and found that nearly half - nearly half! - of all manufacturers in the state have job openings that they can't fill. They want to hire people! But they can't! Because they can't find employees with the skills they need. There's a skills gap.

Ironically, at a time when we have the worst long-term unemployment since the Great Depression, there are manufacturers anxious to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.

But these aren't your grandfather's manufacturing jobs. They are high-tech precision manufacturing jobs like operating a CNC machine - that's Computer Numerical Control. These jobs require critical thinking, problem-solving, and what are known as STEM skills: science, technology, engineering, and math.

These skills are practically mandatory for any worker looking to succeed in the 21st-century economy. And making sure Minnesota workers have those skills is going to take a partnership between our educational institutions, our local leaders, and the business community - not just manufacturing, but agriculture, health care, information technology and other sectors.

It's folks in the business community who are running Workforce Investment Boards across the state and calling for increased investment in workforce development - because they're the ones who need qualified workers to fill these jobs.

I was at a meeting with a bunch of other Senators a while back, and I was talking about how well these partnerships between Workforce Boards and two-year colleges and technical schools and businesses work here in Minnesota. Another Senator said to me, "Yeah, but how are you going to get the businesses and the schools and the workforce boards to work together? You'd have to give them a tax break."
And I said, "No, you don't!" This is about individual acts of leadership and a sense of responsibility to your community.

There are 3 million jobs going unfilled nationwide in all sectors because of this skills gap. And we can close that gap if we just all work together at the local level. People in this very room can fix this.

In Alexandria, they have the nation's #8-ranked technical college. And they started an industrial arts camp for high school kids to get them interested in this stuff early. That's why, in Douglas County, they have much lower unemployment than the rest of the state. Douglas County is the Silicon Valley of business machines because people worked together to build the workforce employers need.

And it's happening here in Rochester, too. The home of the Mayo Clinic should be building a workforce capable of handling the advanced health care jobs of the 21st century. And by bringing a University of Minnesota campus here to Rochester, that's exactly what you're doing.
Mayor Brede talks about this all the time - how the city invested $28 million from city funds and a dedicated sales tax, taking the initiative to bring a U of M campus here to join the other great institutions of higher education in the area.

That's the kind of local leadership we need.

Meanwhile, the commitment to math and science education that helped me and my brother crush the Soviets has lagged. Many high schools have done away with their industrial arts programs.

In fact, the Star Tribune has reported that while, in the 1970s, there were more than 70 career and technical centers for Minnesota high school students, today there are only five in the entire state.

And pay for teachers in these subjects is so much lower than what they could receive putting their skills to use in other industries that many young STEM teachers leave the profession within a few years.

I'm doing everything I can to bring back a focus on STEM education. As we look to reform No Child Left Behind, I'm fighting to improve support for STEM.

I worked with Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon to get a provision for recruiting, training, and rewarding our best STEM teachers included in the Senate bill reforming No Child Left Behind - a provision that will make STEM subjects more accessible to students, get them more engaged, and prepare them for college and careers in STEM subjects.

I also have another piece of legislation that would create a STEM Master Teacher Corps by offering higher pay and career advancement opportunities to the top 5 percent of K-12 STEM teachers, who in turn would mentor other STEM teachers and share best practices.

It's a way of keeping them in the professional and enabling other teachers to learn from them.

And when I'm back home here in Minnesota, I like to visit schools, go to classrooms and bring along local business leaders to make the case for why these subjects are so important - directly to young people.

I was pleased to bring some folks from IBM to Byron Middle School. And I go all over the state with precision manufacturers to talk with middle schoolers and high schoolers, to let them know that these jobs are well-paying and meaningful.

If we can turn our kids onto these subjects and get them excited about taking industrial arts and other STEM classes, we can start to build the workforce that will keep our manufacturers on top for decades to come.

Manufacturing is coming back to America, and coming back to Minnesota. This is going to be a big part of our economic future. And I'm committed to making sure we're ready to reap the benefits.

Of course, Rochester isn't just medicine and mainframes - it's manure, too.

And STEM isn't just about manufacturing. Sometimes it's about stems. And stalks. And cattle. Agriculture is becoming more and more of a high-tech industry.

We've talked about the skills gap and the importance of STEM education in getting our economy back up and running. Here in Rochester it's pretty hard to drive through town and not see the Mayo or IBM.

But it's also hard to drive through town and not see AMPI or Kemps or the big corn cob on top of Seneca Foods. Every time you drive out to the mall you see that corn cob. You don't have to drive too far to get to a dairy barn.

You know, I've learned a lot about the evolving ag sector as a Senator. I grew up in suburbia - St. Louis Park. My dad was a printing salesman. I knew nothing about agriculture.

In fact, when I was eight, if you asked me where food comes from, you know what I would have said?
I would have said a farm. I wasn't a total idiot. We had books. And TV.

Anyway, the ag economy is important here just like it is elsewhere in the state. Indeed, the last time I was in town, I visited Mayo to see the latest innovations there - and I also visited a small farm right up the road.

So I'm hopeful that we're going to get a Farm Bill passed in the House this year, because we got a really great one passed in the Senate.
I was proud to help include a provision that helps out beginning farmers who want to join the great rural tradition here in Minnesota - particularly veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and are seeking jobs or going back to school here in Minnesota.

By the way, that's something I want to communicate to anyone who owns a business or makes hiring decisions here in the Rochester area: Take the opportunity to hire a veteran.

One key focus for my office has been helping veterans, whether it's the first bill I wrote and passed - matching veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress with service dogs - or the work we do every day to help vets navigate bureaucracy.

But when I get the chance to talk with veterans back home in Minnesota, the issue I hear most about is unemployment. Without a job, it's almost impossible to re-integrate into your community and transition into a new phase of your life. And the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans in Minnesota has been much higher than the state average.

So here's my pitch. These guys are incredibly talented. They aren't just the world's best fighting force, but also the world's best mechanics, drivers, engineers - you name it. These are potential employees with amazing discipline, experience working in teams, and a record of performing under enormous pressure.

I even worked to pass legislation called the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act into law. It creates and expands tax credits for employers who hire veterans, giving them a special incentive to hire veterans who have been unemployed for a long time or who are living with service-related disabilities.

You can get up to $9,600 in tax credits for every veteran you hire. But not enough employers know about it. So I'm telling you. And I hope you'll spread the word, because I know you share my commitment to helping our veterans find work. I'm particularly excited and grateful that you're putting on a Hire Our Heroes event in October here in Rochester.

There's a lot more I want to get done in Washington.

And while I certainly have strong opinions, I don't think anyone needs to win an ideological food fight to make a difference for our state. In fact, I think that's exactly what we shouldn't be doing.

We all do better when we all work together. Business and labor. Democrats and Republicans. The public sector and the private sector.
That's how we've always done it here in Minnesota. And I know we can do it again.

We have the same civic values I learned when I was growing up in St. Louis Park. We have the same bountiful natural resources, the same great institutions of learning, the same dedicated workforce, and the same forward-thinking business leaders. And we have the same playbook.

The work ahead won't be easy. But let's not forget for a minute that we're on the same team - and when we are, there's nothing we can't do.

Thank you for your friendship, and for inviting me here today.


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