Economist Dennis Winters, who heads the data-crunching team
at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, doesn’t sugarcoat
the major demographic challenge facing the state: We’re old, getting
older and having more issues by the hour finding enough workers —
skilled or otherwise — to expand the economy.

“This phenomenon has never
happened before, and it’s not going away,” Winters told a Friday meeting
of the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment.

How Wisconsin responds to one of
the most serious demographic challenges in its history is vital to the
state’s economy, which must add or replace 1 million workers in the next
10 years as the current workforce ages and businesses seek to grow or,
in some cases, simply survive.

Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

While Wisconsin’s population
continues to expand, its civilian workforce is flattening out and may
even decline by 2035, according to state Department of Workforce
Development estimates cited by Winters. In part, that’s because the
state’s population is aging, but Wisconsin must also do a better job of
attracting and retaining young workers — primarily those in their 20s
and 30s.

Failure to address both the
“brain drain” (out-migration) and the “brain gain” (in-migration) issues
would pose major problems for the state as it struggles to compete in
the 21st century Innovation Economy.

Reconstituted earlier this year,
the Council on Workforce Investment has been asked to recommend
strategies for aligning workforce development resources to support
economic growth. That will include building career pathways to support
high-demand industries, identifying best practices around training and
apprenticeships and making every worker — young, old, disabled or
otherwise — count for Wisconsin.

Finding innovative ways to
retrain dislocated workers and to engage sidelined workers of all types
is vital in an era when demographic quantity counts every bit as much as
quality, Winters said.

Workforce challenges are
connected to what continues to be a historically slow recovery from the
latest recession, which was well underway by 2008. Real gross domestic
product recovery 16 quarters after the official end of the Great
Recession has been 9.2%, the lowest of the 11 recessions since World War
II. Similarly, jobs recovery has also been the slowest of the 11

“There has been a structural
change in the economy,” Winters said. “This is not your father’s
Oldsmobile … in fact, they don’t make Oldsmobiles anymore.”

In Wisconsin in 2010, there were
only four counties where more than 23% of the population was 65 or
older. That is predicted to grow to 58 counties by 2040. That trend is
aggravated by a slightly above-average loss of young people just after
their high school years. The bigger problem may be the state’s inability
to attract people in their 20s and 30s, which Winters said is partly a
cultural issue.

“Young people today don’t just live to work, they work to live,” he said.

Keeping and attracting
millennials was also a topic Thursday at a League of Wisconsin
Municipalities meeting in Elkhart Lake, where speakers agreed “cool”
cities have the best chance to become hot cities in terms of attracting
and retaining talent.

There are other demographic
issues as well. Tom Hefty, an economist who once headed Wisconsin Blue
Cross Blue Shield United, told the gathering of city and village
executives the state’s workforce participation rate for men and women
has declined since the 1990s — although still higher than the U.S.
average. Wisconsin’s median household income has also slipped relative
to the United States as a whole.

So, is Wisconsin’s demographic crunch a doomsday book? Not necessarily.

Winters noted that productivity
is king, especially in an economy driven by innovation and knowledge.
There are programs already in place to retrain and match workers, not
based on the jobs they once held, but based on skills that are adaptable
to new jobs that are sometimes remarkably different.

Improving Wisconsin’s industry
mix is essential, as are continued efforts to encourage start-ups and
other emerging companies that are likely to attract younger workers.
Partnerships between government, business and education can help make
the most efficient use of workers — and Wisconsin can likely do a better
job of promoting its natural and recreational assets to millennials.

And, by the way, companies can’t
complain too loudly about finding talented workers if they’re paying
significantly less than national or regional averages.

It’s not just about brats and
cheese in the emerging battle for talent, but computer bytes,
competitive wages and a welcoming culture that appeals to people of all
ages and backgrounds. That’s a Wisconsin where more people will choose
to stay, visit and move.