A better economy, but not equally better

for hire sign_editedThings are looking up, right?

Labor Day 2013 is upon us, and Minnesota’s economy is slow improving. Home sales and home prices are rebounding, and the state is on its best financial footing in years, revenue-wise.

But do the economic improvements help close the persistent gap between the haves and have-nots, a gap between high- and low-wage Minnesotans that’s been growing for more than 30 years?

Not according to an August study from the Minnesota Budget Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

According to the research, part of a report titled “In the Shadow of the Great Recession: The State of Working Minnesota 2013”:

  • Low-wage workers are seeing much slower wage growth than high-wage workers.
  • More people are unemployed for longer periods of time, which can have a large impact on a person’s finances, career prospects, and family.
  • Many workers are underemployed, and still need jobs with more hours that match their skills.
  • Many are accepting part-time work because they cannot find full-time jobs.
  • And fewer Minnesotans are working or looking for work, as the recovery has not yet created enough jobs.

Between 1979 and 2012, according to the study, high-wage workers saw their wages increase by 26 percent, but the wages of low-wage workers only increased by 5 percent and middle-income workers’ wages increased by 12 percent.

In 1979, the median wage of high-wage workers in Minnesota was 3.1 times higher than the median wage of low-wage workers. As of 2012, it had grown to 3.7 times higher.

The research indicates that a sizable gap between men’s and women’s wages continues, and that people of color are much more likely to be underemployed.

On this Labor Day, it’s important to remember that, just as the Great Recession didn’t equally affect all income levels, races, and genders, neither is the economic recovery providing uniform benefits across the board. There’s a lot of catch-up to be done, my friends.

Running: It’s just not that complicated

This blog's author in his first competitive 5K running race.

This blog’s author in his first competitive 5K running race.

I like to think of running as the Great Equalizer. Unlike golf, tennis, and many other activities considered to be lifelong sports, running doesn’t need a course, court or other venue, and it doesn’t require a lot of expensive gear.

Really, all you need are four S-words: Shorts, Shirt, Shoes, and a little Stamina. (OK, you might want to throw in a fifth S-word, Socks, for good measure and healthier feet.)

Could it possibly be any more Simple? (OK, done with the S-words. Promise!)

I know running has its drawbacks. It can be hard on the knees. Some say it’s boring. But as individual sports go, there are few other things that can be learned as quickly, can be done almost any time, and – if you’re the competitive sort – give you the same satisfaction.

This was brought home to me again recently by Malcolm Gladwell, the New York Times best-selling author (including “Blink,” “The Tipping Point,” and “Outliers”) who was interviewed for the September 2013 issue of Runner’s World magazine.

Gladwell, who began running in middle school, was asked what it is about the sport that has kept him interested for so long. I love the author’s response:

“I just like the purity of it. I like the fact that it doesn’t have the rules and refs, the owners and teams, fancy uniforms and equipment, and all the other things that have weighed down so much modern sport.”

He goes on to say:

“Increasingly, there are so many impediments to people doing the things they want to do. In running there really is no impediment. Some kid in the highlands of Kenya can run on an even playing field with some kid in Orange County, California. That’s fantastic and rare. I find that very beautiful, and it makes the sport more powerful.”

After all, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other, quickly. And almost everyone is capable of that.

If you’re lucky, your hometown preserves its history

The peony garden at the historical Cummins, Phipps, Grill house.

The peony garden at the historic Cummins, Phipps, Grill house.

If you live in a community long enough, it usually becomes your “hometown.” It doesn’t matter if you were born there, schooled there, or raised children there. At some point, you put down roots. To you, it’s home.

I’m not an Eden Prairie native, but I’ve lived there nearly 30 years. That’s much longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, so when people ask me about my hometown, I naturally mention Eden Prairie.

One of the many things I like about Eden Prairie is that there’s a pretty healthy respect for history. There aren’t a ton of historic sites – remember, Eden Prairie was never what you’d call a traditional small town, having evolved directly from a farming township to a metropolitan suburb. But much of what’s left has been more or less preserved.

I say “more or less” because it’s difficult for any community to save everything that’s old and significant. Historic homes and sites are expensive to purchase and maintain, and only rarely do they generate a fair amount of revenue. Eden Prairie has done as well as most suburbs its size, I would say.

The photo you see here is from the peony garden of the historic Cummins, Phipps, Grill House along Pioneer Trail in Eden Prairie. The brick home was built in 1879 and ’80, and the enormous peony garden that still thrives was planted on the home’s east side about 1920.

While I cannot argue that there are economic benefits to historic preservation of this type, I will assert there are at least three cultural or educational reasons for communities to have amenities like the Cummins, Phipps, Grill House and peony garden, and why their residents – young and old alike – should know about and visit them:

  1. Historic places provide character to a community, especially in cities like Eden Prairie, which would be Any Suburb, U.S.A. if not for the occasional quirkiness offered by a historic site.
  2. They provide an educational opportunity, a chance to learn about one’s place in time relative to Native Americans, pioneers, and others.
  3. And they provide a means of community engagement, as venues where local citizens congregate to repair, enhance, or celebrate.

Perhaps more than anything, it just makes sense to hang on to something that’s meaningful, distinctive, and nostalgic.

‘Leadership and Self-Deception’ gets to the heart of business relationships

LSD book_editedYou wouldn’t think that adults still need to be reminded to use the Golden Rule, another name for that biblical teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And yet, that’s at the heart of “Leadership and Self-Deception,” a bestselling business book I recently devoured upon the recommendation of a friend.

Treat others as people, not objects, advises The Arbinger Institute, author of this book and a companion called “The Anatomy of Peace.” Or, put another way: Treat them as you’d like to be treated.

And yet, I somehow found this awkwardly-titled book to have a transformational effect on the way I regard and interact with people around me, including family, friends, and colleagues.

“Leadership and Self-Deception” speaks at length about being “in the box” or “out of the box.” You are “in the box” if you are thinking mostly about yourself, which is a trait that leads to self-deception in what’s actually going on around you. However, when you are “out of the box” you put other people and their needs ahead of your own. You relate to them in a healthier way.

It’s an important distinction when you are trying to make your relationships – and your business – not only functional but successful and rewarding.

There’s a lot more to this book than I have shared, and yet its telling is refreshingly simple and lacking in the business jargon that weighs down so many bestsellers in the work-world and self-improvement categories these days.

In other words, it’s both profound and practical. It’s little wonder that businesses have begun using its principles in the screening and hiring of job applicants, in leadership and team building, in resolving workplace conflict, and in holding executives accountable.

You can find out more about the book and other works by The Arbinger Institute at www.arbinger.com. I love the organization’s tagline: “The solution you never expected.” It’s how “Leadership and Self-Deception” influenced me, and I bet it’s how it will influence you, too.

Chanhassen: No. 3 and liking it

Chanhassen gets a No. 3 ranking in Money's list of best small towns.

Chanhassen gets a No. 3 ranking in Money’s list of best small towns.

A friend remarked to me last evening that he would continue to reside in the southwest suburbs, where the cities and school systems are extraordinary, even if he only had enough money to live in a shoebox.

The amenities are that great, as is validated by the latest issue of Money magazine, which ranks Chanhassen as the country’s third-best small town to live in, and best overall in the Midwest. Similar rankings have been bestowed on the southwest suburbs of Eden Prairie and Chaska in recent years.

I can’t speak for other Twin Cities-area suburbs, which are less known to me, but I suspect there are many other fine communities in this region. Rankings such as those printed annually by Money aren’t always fair or scientific.

But, though I do not live in Chanhassen, I can speak to its qualities: They are many, and they are high.

You see, I helped start Chanhassen’s weekly community newspaper, the Chanhassen Villager, back in 1987. Up to that point, it was probably known more for the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and a few biker bars than anything else.

Today that city is very much gleaming and new, experiencing a golden age of development and fresh amenities – including a new high school, new parks, a progressive landscape arboretum, and plenty of great retail. As with so many cities that get national recognition, it also had a few natural resources to build on, including picturesque lakes.

The newspaper’s name, Villager, was picked in part because it evoked a small-town feel. A sense of community and “hometown-ness” is usually critical for a small newspaper’s success, so picking Villager as the moniker was something of a slam dunk.

As fate would have it, Chanhassen is anything but a small town these days. With a population north of 23,000 and a median home sale of $208,000, Chanhassen is accruing some of the big-suburb characteristics typically associated with Eden Prairie and others.

But Chanhassen is on a good path, one likely to keep it attractive, thanks to some excellent planning and leadership. Kudos to Chanhassen and those who live there – your choice of communities to reside in has been validated!

For a few moments of Minnesota’s best, step outside the office

Find ways to escape the office.

Find ways to escape the office.

August and September are two of the months, weather-wise, that make it bearable to live in Minnesota the rest of the year.

It can get hot and muggy in August, but if you have schoolchildren it’s get-away month, offering the final before-school weekends to enjoy the lake cabin or visit a state park. (Minnesota has 67 state parks that last year hosted just short of 8 million visitors, so you can see that summer get-aways are popular.)

September brings the return of school, but also the cooler and bright-blue-sky weather that screams, “Get outside while you can; winter is just ‘round the corner.”

Monthly high-temperature averages for Minneapolis are 81 degrees in August and 72 degrees in September – great for displaying sun-soaked bare arms and legs for at least most of the day.

These are the months to get outside and enjoy, and we do, thus bolstering our so-called “quality of life.” Minnesota, you see, was once again a top-five state in the 2012 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which measures such things as emotional and physical health, work environment, healthy behaviors, etc. Minnesota ranked third, behind Hawaii and Colorado.

Other rankings also show how much we value our ability to get outdoors and be active. Earlier this year, the Trust for Public Land said Minneapolis ranked first in a national analysis of city park systems, looking at everything from park size to the number of playgrounds.

But how do you make the most of these two months when 5 of 7 weekdays are spent at work, for most of us indoors? You capitalize on weekend free time, no doubt, but there are a few ways you can also sneak some outside minutes while at work.

Here are four tips that are adapted from a longer list of workplace-exercise ideas provided by Mayo Clinic staff:

1. Make the most of your commute. Walk or bike to work or, if you must drive a car or take the bus, get out of your car or bus a few blocks from the office and walk the rest of the way.

2. Take fitness breaks. Rather than hang out near the coffee pot, get outside and walk around the building or the block.

3. Get social. Organize a lunchtime walking group and hold each other accountable for regular exercise.

4. Conduct meetings on the go. When it’s practical, schedule that one-on-one or small-group meeting as an outdoor stroll.

Steal some outdoor minutes whenever you can. Soak up August and September. It just might make you forget about the more forbidding weather that follows.

A job-seeker takes a flying leap

The author, strapped to an expert, in freefall after leaping from an airplane near Baldwin, Wis.

The author, strapped to an expert, in freefall after leaping from an airplane near Baldwin, Wis.

If you have recently become a “job seeker,” as I have, you have joined a big club.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 11.5 million unemployed persons in the U.S. as of July, 4.2 million of them jobless for 27 weeks or more.

I am one of the lucky ones, having chosen to voluntarily seek employment elsewhere rather than accept a job change not suited to me.

Still, whether you are a job seeker voluntarily or involuntarily, the expert advice is often the same, including: Choose your next position carefully and methodically, and take care of yourself in the process. It’s not quite “enjoy the journey,” but it’s pretty close.

For example, in “The Encore Career Handbook,” author Marci Alboher cites writers who have addressed major transitions in life – marriage, divorce, a job change, etc. – as times with a beginning and end, but also a middle time of uncertainty, confusion, and loss. “That ‘empty or fallow’ time is an important part of the process,” she writes, “and many agree that it’s often necessary to pass through it, not just skip around it, to get to the other side of a transition.”

Experts say this in-between period is an ideal time for thinking, planning, and reflecting.

There is even a biblical side to this, for Scripture speaks to the folly of toil and the accumulation of things rather than rest, prayer, and mediation. (In Ecclesiastes 2:23: All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.)

In the spirit of making my job search a time to explore and grow, I jumped out of an airplane Saturday. At first glance, that seems like a quick path to “life end” rather than “life change,” but trust me: It’s part of a plan.

You see, I have not taken a lot of risks in my life. I worked for the same company for 34 years and I’ve lived in the same town for 29 years. This career change I am making is a risk, and so I need to get accustomed to uncertainty. Therefore, having long possessed a gift certificate for one tandem skydive – where you are strapped to an expert and essentially along for the ride – I decided this was the perfect time to stretch my comfort level.

I can’t claim this was accomplished with perfection. In the still photos and video taken of my skydive – including an 8,000-foot freefall at approximately 120 mph – I am dressed like a goofball, as if I had been busy tending my suburban lawn when I suddenly decided to jump from an airplane 2½ miles above the ground. But it was accomplished, and what a rush it was!

I fully intend to work long walks and amateur meditation into my search for a new career, but those may not give me the kind of adrenaline high resulting from a skydive, nor this very important realization: When you have taken a leap from an airplane, this job-search thing no longer seems quite so scary.