By Tom Still

MADISON – When Gov. Jim Doyle flew around the state last week to announce the expansion or relocation of 10 tech-based companies, the news raised a question that is harder to answer than one might imagine: How many technology companies and tech jobs does Wisconsin have?

It can depend on who’s doing the counting, as well as what categories of jobs and companies are being counted. The search for an answer also demonstrates that technology is a part of so many companies and professions that it’s hard to tell where a high-tech job begins and a low-tech job ends.

In his fly-around to Green Bay, Hudson and Madison, Doyle cited 403 companies and 34,000 jobs in the state’s “biotechnology” sector. Both numbers come from a 2008 report by the Wisconsin Association for Biomedical Research and Education.

A more encompassing term than biotechnology would have “bioscience” jobs. The WABRE survey counted numbers from bioscience manufacturers, bioscience service companies and jobs in 14 different sectors, from medical imaging to food biotechnology to biofuels research. In other words, it measured a lot more than the stereotypical medical biotech company.

Battelle, the nation’s largest non-profit research organization, offered a similar benchmark in its 2008 report on the bioscience industry. Using 2006 data, Battelle reported that Wisconsin had 684 companies and 22,414 workers in the four main categories they have been measuring for years – agricultural feedstocks and chemicals, drugs and pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment, and research, testing and medical laboratories.

While Battelle didn’t come up with 34,000 jobs, it calculated the “total employment impact” at 85,019 jobs. In other words, there’s a ripple effect.

Battelle also said Wisconsin’s bioscience employment was growing faster than the U.S. average in three of four major categories. Wisconsin’s job growth in agricultural feedstocks and chemicals, drugs and pharmaceuticals, and research, testing and medical laboratories all exceeded the U.S. average between 2001 and 2006, the Battelle study concluded. Only in medical devices and equipment did Wisconsin fail to grow at the U.S. average, but the state still ranked as a “specialized” state in that sector.

The Madison area was the only one of 361 metropolitan areas classified by Battelle as “specialized” in all four sectors. That’s also captured in the annual High-Tech Directory published by Madison Gas & Electric Co., which has been charting the tech sectors in Dane County for 20-plus years.

The 2009 MGE report counted 83 companies in the biotechnology cluster for Dane County. It showed another 34 in the Scientific R&D services cluster, of which 17 are life sciences. There are three more in the Medical & Diagnostic Laboratories category. So, there are roughly 100 companies in Dane County now that could be described as “life sciences” or biosciences. That compares to about 80 three years ago.

Perhaps the real story is that information technology continues to be a far larger sector in Wisconsin than biosciences.

The latest Cyberstates report by TechAmerica, the nation’s largest technology organization, ranked Wisconsin 21st among the 50 states in high-tech workers with 85,100 in 49 industry sectors measured by NAICS. Grouped more broadly, those sectors include high-tech manufacturing, communications services, software services and engineering and tech services.

Wisconsin’s high-tech payroll was $5.4 billion in 2007, according to the Cyberstates report released in April, and ranked 22nd nationwide. The state had 4,300 high-tech establishments, which ranked 23rd among the states. Salaries of Wisconsin high-tech workers averaged $63,100, good for 35th among the states – but still 67 percent higher than Wisconsin’s average private sector wage.

Additional bright spots within those figures: Wisconsin ranked third in the electromedical equipment manufacturing with 6,300 jobs and ninth in electronic components manufacturing with 7,300 jobs. It was also 13th in software publishers at 5,500 jobs.

Of course, all of these figures reflect job levels before the Great Recession. And it’s complicated by the fact that many tech jobs are imbedded in companies that seem decidedly no-tech.

“Counting occupations is more accurate than counting companies,” said economist David Ward of NorthStar Economics in Madison. “When you count occupations, you might pick up a chemist working at a paper mill. Or you might find a waste disposal company with a chemist, environmental engineers and people running their IT.”

The bottom line is that no one can say for sure how many bioscience or other tech jobs exist in Wisconsin today because it’s a moving target, redefined by an ever-growing list of jobs that didn’t exist 15, 10 or five years ago. The trick is to keep that target moving in the right direction.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.