Mining is a small part of Minnesota’s economy. So why is it such a big political issue?

Visit Iron Range towns like Babbitt, Hibbing, Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota this election season and it’s not just signs supporting candidates that decorate lawns and businesses.
Signs with slogans like “We Support Mining” are pretty much permanent fixtures in this part of the state, where mining has been an important pillar of the economy for well over a century.

The signs may be numerous, but the number of people actually employed in mining in Minnesota isn’t: Mining is directly responsible for about 0.2 percent of Minnesota’s jobs and less than 3 percent of its economic output, according to state data.

Despite making up a relatively small share of Minnesota’s economy by those measures, mining is a big political issue in races for Minnesota governor, Senate, and Congress. What makes this relatively small industry such a big political deal?

A big impact in Northeastern Minnesota

Mining has a long history in Minnesota, beginning in the 1800s when prospectors looking for gold in the northeastern part of the state struck on something different in the region’s reddish landscape: iron ore.

At first, they passed up the mineral to continue the search for gold. But, by the 1910s, iron ore was mined and shipped from the Vermilion, Mesabi and Cuyuna ranges. Soon, mining was one of the state’s biggest industries.

More than a century later, the majority of the mining activities in Minnesota still have to do with extracting iron ore. Up to 44 million tons of it gets pulled from the Mesabi Iron Range — a narrow strip that stretches from Grand Rapids through Babbitt — each year.

But mining makes up a relatively small share of employment in Minnesota these days. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the state’s mining industry is made up of 210 businesses that employed about 5,700 people in 2017 — fewer than the 8,300 working for Target in downtown Minneapolis in 2017.

Proportionally, though, as Target headquarters is to Minneapolis, mining is to northeastern Minnesota — roughly speaking.

Whereas Target’s 8,300 downtown employees make up about 3 percent of employment in the city of Minneapolis, mining makes up nearly 4 percent of the jobs in northeastern Minnesota, according to DEED’s data (data do not include farm payroll or self-employed people).
What’s more, mining jobs pay considerably more than the average job in the region: nearly $90,000, compared to $43,000 for jobs overall.

Mining jobs are some of the best-paying around in northeast Minnesota, but they aren’t the most stable.

Employment in mining has been dropping in the long-term, thanks to automation and outsourcing, said Cameron Macht, regional analysis and outreach manager at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In the last two decades, employment went from about 6,800 to about 5,300.

Mining jobs in Minnesota, 2000-2018

Though the long-term trend has been a decline in employment, employment in the mining industry is closely tied to to the performance of the economy overall. Mining employment dropped during the early 2000s recession and again during the 2008 recession.

Despite a booming economy overall in Minnesota in 2015 and 2016, the state’s mining mining industry saw mines shutter and employment slashed due to low foreign steel prices, said Kelsey Johnson, the president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

Mines began to reopen in 2016, when President Barack Obama’s administration cracked down on foreign steel dumping. Early this year, President Donald Trump’s administration imposed tariffs designed to further protect the domestic steel industry.