By Tom Still

MADISON – Workforce development means different things to different
people – which is why the term carries emotional and political weight across
Wisconsin, from its small towns to its major cities.

It also explains why policymakers must aspire to devise a balanced
approach to meeting Wisconsin’s diverse workforce needs.

If you live in a city where a significant percentage of young adults
don’t even graduate from high school, workforce development is about survival:
Avoiding a lifetime of low-wage jobs and living on the edge.

If home is rural Wisconsin and some of your best and brightest young
people believe they must move away for brighter futures, it means something
else: Stopping the “brain drain” and saving your community.

If you’re a plant manager, the term carries still another meaning: Hiring
people who want to work and learn, no matter what educational degrees those
workers might hold.

And if you’re an executive in a tech-based company, workforce
development is about finding skilled workers at home or abroad who fit
comfortably into a “live, work, play” lifestyle that exists in some Wisconsin
cities but not all.

For the array of state policymakers, business leaders, educators,
economists, demographers and others who confront Wisconsin’s workforce development
challenges almost daily, it is hard to come up with a single answer to the

Solutions aimed at helping displaced, 50-something workers probably
won’t keep young people at home, and strategies devised to satisfy manufacturers
aren’t likely to fill voids in high-growth sectors with specific technical

That’s why a mix of remedies are needed to address Wisconsin’s emerging
workforce needs, which collectively stand in the way of greater prosperity for
the state and its citizens.

That point was brought home during this month’s Lake Superior Business
& Technology Conference in Ashland, where much of the agenda was devoted to
understanding workforce challenges locally and statewide.

“Business and industry today face competition in the world marketplace
that we’ve never faced before,” said Doug Moquin, a retired Phillips Plastics
Corp. executive who still advises industry and serves on several workforce
development boards. “There is a constant challenge today to find talented
workers – at a time when too many workers have given up on the workforce.”

By “giving up on the workforce,” Moquin means many workers have simply
dropped out, either because their skills are no longer in demand or because
they can’t find a job that’s right for them. In a state like Wisconsin, with a
population that is skewing slightly older, losing talent to workforce dropout
only makes the shortages worse.

Moquin also noted that not every worker is created equal. There was a
time in history, as late as a generation ago, when semi-skilled workers could
find jobs and hold them until they retired. That’s not true in a world that is
increasingly dependent on the top half of the talent pool for economic growth.

Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System,
addressed the same point from a different angle – educational attainment.

“A high-school degree is not going to get it done for the vast majority
of our citizens,” Foy said. “By 2018, she added, 60 percent of all jobs will
require some kind of post-secondary education.

She also cited what she called the “1:2:7” ratio, which has remained basically
unchanged for decades in the United States. That ratio suggests that for every
one worker with a professional degree, there are two others with four-year
college degrees and seven more with something less than a bachelor’s degree.
Those seven are workers the tech colleges aspire to educate, Foy said.

For those involved in building Wisconsin’s workforce, the political
temptation is to focus on a few high-profile sectors or demographics and let
everyone else fend for themselves. The better long-term approach is to look for
a mix of solutions that will help educate, train, attract and retain workers across
a range of sectors and disciplines.

Ten years from now, Wisconsin will need more welders and tradesmen –
and more data scientists and engineers. There’s no reason not to pursue both