If Gov. Scott Walker sounds a bit worried on the stump these days about training, attracting and retaining enough workers for the state economy, there’s good reason: Demographics are working against Wisconsin.
Like many states, Wisconsin faces a wave of baby boomer retirements — already well underway. Also, birth rates have declined, as reflected in school enrollment figures.
Out-migration of workers (the so-called “brain drain”) remains a demographic drag. Recent calculations of U.S. Census data by Governing magazine showed Wisconsin with a negative net migration rate between 2010 and 2015, a period when 16,998 more people moved out than in.
Wisconsin is historically low on the list of states that attract immigrants, who often fill workforce gaps. The state’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, claimed 9.8% and 10.7% foreign-born populations in 2014. The U.S. average was 13%.
Perhaps most telling are figures related to “prime working age” population, which economists peg as people between 25 and 54 years old. The national total climbed 0.6% between 2010 and 2015, but fell sharply in Brown, Jefferson, Kenosha, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties while rising at roughly the U.S. average in Dane and Milwaukee counties.
Unless Wisconsin replenishes its workforce breeding stock within 10 years or so, there will be fewer working adults here than there are retirees.
“Workforce development is going to be the number one priority moving forward, because if you improve the workforce of the state, we improve the economic vitality of the state, and we improve the ability to expand jobs and prosperity to the state,” Walker told the Jan. 5 Economic Forecast luncheon of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.
That will require a comprehensive plan to confront Wisconsin’s people crunch through educating, retaining, recruiting, rehabilitating or otherwise cajoling every worker possible.
The Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, led by business leader Mark Tyler, has been researching challenges and possible solutions for more than a year. That group’s work builds upon the efforts of past workforce commissions, the state Department of Workforce Development and other public and private bodies.
Many strategies on the table fall outside classic workforce development tools, which have focused for years on skills training for displaced workers. Many new ideas aim to fill what is increasingly a “body gap” versus a skills gap.
Walker spoke to the bankers’ group of “leaving no one on the sidelines,” referencing a broad spectrum of people: those who are released from Wisconsin’s correctional system; those with mental or physical disabilities; veterans returning from military service; people recovering from addictions; and people receiving public assistance.
He also spoke of exposing young people to career options at a much earlier age (experts say high school is often too late), putting more money into school-community “fab labs” and improving apprenticeship programs with the help of businesses and schools.
Look for Walker’s welfare reform initiative to include easing people off assistance and into jobs, with requirements for regular job searches and drug testing. His latest proposals to fight opioid addiction, which are so far attracting bipartisan support, carry with them the notion that rehabilitation and treatment are the first steps to returning addicts to the workforce.
He also noted the skills and work ethic of returning veterans. “My goal is to have zero — not one veteran, particularly those who are returning from deployment — who comes home wanting for a job when they return home to the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.
For some free-market Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Walker’s proposals may verge on social engineering because he is simultaneously prodding and persuading ex-inmates, welfare recipients and others to join the workforce. If a few carrots come with the sticks, however, even Adam Smith might approve.
Many Democrats may ask how Walker can talk about workforce development now while spending less on higher education and K-12 schools over time. It remains to be seen if and how his 2017-’19 budget proposal addresses their concerns.
To some degree, Walker is banking on President-elect Donald Trump to do what he said he would do: Give states more leeway to design their own social, education, health and economic programs without too many federal strings. That may be trusting the Tweeter-in-Chief a bit too much, but it would help if states had more flexibility.
Wisconsin’s workforce shortage wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be quickly solved, either. For more employers to be persuaded to grow in Wisconsin, it needs more people who are willing, ready and able to take part in the 21st-century workforce.