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Solving the workforce puzzle: Lots of pieces, not a lot of time

Originally published by the Wisconsin Technology Council 

MADISON, Wis. – During an opening session at a recent conference on Wisconsin’s workforce attraction and retention woes, state labor economist Dennis Winters was asked, “Is doomsday around the corner?” His reply – only half in jest – was, “No, it’s here.”

In fact, this demographic doomsday has been on the doorstep for decades. Only during the post-COVID recovery have more people started to notice and get worried about it.

Examining the overlapping and hard-to-resolve reasons for the stalled growth of the Wisconsin workforce was the goal of an Aug. 11 Competitive Wisconsin Inc. conference in Eau Claire, where a mix of business leaders, economic development professionals, educators, local government officials and others gathered to talk about root causes and possible solutions.

The consensus? The causes are myriad and addressing them must begin now.

Economists and demographers in Wisconsin have been warning for decades that a shortage of workforce-aged people was inevitable. The St. Louis-based research arm of the Federal Reserve reports Wisconsin’s “labor force participation” rate declined from 74.5% in late 1997 to 66.4% in June 2022.  That rate reflects the number of all employed and unemployed workers divided against the state’s civilian population.

Declining birth rates are not just a Wisconsin phenomenon in recent decades – a similar story can be told in much of the Western world – but the fall is more noticeable in Wisconsin, in part because the state attracts fewer immigrants and intrastate movers. At a time when much of the United States is on the move, Wisconsin isn’t a leading destination. About 1.1 million people moved from one U.S. state to another in 2021, the conference was told, yet only 3,400 or so wound up in Wisconsin.

Even if there was a second “baby boom” starting tomorrow, Wisconsin’s workforce wouldn’t reap the benefits for about 20 years. So, what fixes could be made a lot sooner?

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt, one of nearly 20 panelists at the conference, noted it will take a “web of inter-related solutions” to attract and retain more workers in Wisconsin. On the list were items such as easing housing shortages; making childcare more available; expanding broadband options, especially in rural Wisconsin; encouraging innovation in education; improving access to transportation; and generally touting the state’s regional assets to compete with other states. Wisconsin long ago figured out how to promote tourism and the dairy industry, so why not workforce attraction?

It also means coming up with strategies to make Wisconsin a “net recipient” of remote workers versus a net donor. That links to perceptions of quality of life and not discouraging young people who may embrace “live and let live” views on social issues, and who feel unwelcome in places that do not. It can mean lowering professional and vocational licensing barriers that make it easier for people to move to Wisconsin, versus fenced out by regulations.

For businesses, it means recognizing companies cannot simply show up on “Job Fair” days and expect to sign up young workers. Successful recruiters in business today are starting much earlier than that. It means businesses must and will continue trends towards automation and other digital solutions. That need not mean fewer jobs, but better jobs. While immigration is a federal issue, Wisconsin should find ways to welcome and integrate legal newcomers into society, such as those who make it through the H-1B high-skilled visa labyrinth.

One concept highlighted by Graham Anderson, senior manager of marketing for Milwaukee Tool, was the notion of people held back by a “benefits cliff.” That “cliff” explains why some people won’t take a higher-paid job if it means immediately losing benefits such as Badger Care health coverage or Wisconsin Shares childcare benefits. He and others argued for transition periods for such programs.

Is “doomsday” nigh? I hope not, although the policy track record after two decades of warnings is poor. The Legislative Council’s Special Committee on Building Wisconsin’s Workforce (2008) and the 2012 Sullivan Commission Report (The Road Ahead: Restoring Wisconsin’s Workforce Development) are two examples of solid work largely ignored.  Wisconsin can and must do better.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at

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