Perception is reality, or so everyone says. But what if the
perceptions themselves are a mystery? That makes efforts to assess
reality that much more difficult.

Learning what people think of
Wisconsin — as a place to live, work and play — is the goal of a
perception survey underway through a partnership that involves two state
business organizations, three higher education systems and three state

Called “Wisconsin state of mind:
A national perception survey,” the online poll is admittedly
unscientific because of its open-ended, all-comers nature. Then again,
its results may be instructive as policy-makers, business leaders and
others grapple with how to position Wisconsin in a world where image
often counts more than fact.

Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

The survey is part of the
“Future Wisconsin” project of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce,
the state’s largest business association, with support from the
Wisconsin Technology Council; the University of Wisconsin System; the
Wisconsin Technical College System; the Wisconsin Association of
Independent Colleges and Universities; the state Department of Workforce
Development; the state Department of Public Instruction; and the
Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Collectively, these groups want
to know how people inside or outside Wisconsin view the state — and hope
to use those perceptions, warts and all, to the state’s advantage.

“We want to make Wisconsin
irresistible to people all over the United States, but in order to begin
doing so, we need to know what we’re up against — the positives as well
as the negatives,” said Jim Morgan, president of the WMC Foundation.

The survey is relatively short —
14 questions, counting demographics — and takes only a few minutes to
complete. It’s designed to ferret out specific information but also to
capture impressions.

For example, survey participants
are asked: “Please list three words to describe Wisconsin.” They are
also asked: “If Wisconsin was a car, what car would it be?” and “If I
were in Wisconsin for the weekend, I would most likely…”

Other questions ask respondents
to select from a list of choices. The possible responses to “In your
opinion, Wisconsin is a leader in…” are Innovation, Education,
Manufacturing, Parks and Recreation, Sense of Community, Overall Quality
of Life, Business-Education Partnerships, Technology and Healthy

Another question asks: “In
selecting a place to live, please rank the importance of the following
to you:” and lists cost of living, commute time, wage/salary
expectations, crime and public safety, education, job opportunities,
social tolerance/diversity, arts and entertainment, sports and
recreation, urban living and weather.

The survey also asks respondents
to list what type of jobs they would expect to find in Wisconsin. The
list includes tourism, professional service, health care, manufacturing,
retail, technology, food production and processing, education,
agriculture and other.

In order to size out the
interstate competition, the survey also asks respondents to list three
states where they would consider relocating.

Demographic realities

The survey comes at a time when
Wisconsin policy-makers, educators and business leaders are coming to
grips with demographic realities. Wisconsin must add or replace 1
million workers in the next 10 years as the current workforce ages and
businesses of all types seek to grow or, in some cases, simply survive.

Although 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. 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
will pose major problems for Wisconsin as it struggles to compete in
the 21st-century Innovation Economy.

Perceptions matter — and it will help to know how people view the state from afar as well as close to home.

How will the information be
used? Survey results will be revealed Dec. 9 at the Future Wisconsin
Project Economic Summit at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in
Madison. Want to take the survey? Visit the Wisconsin Technology Council
website at

Even better … forward the
survey to your out-of-state friends (it doesn’t matter if they hate
Wisconsin, we still love them) and post it on your Facebook or LinkedIn
pages, where others from around the country can take a crack at it.

Perception may not be reality,
but in a world where impressions can stick for years and even lifetimes,
it can come awfully close.