By Tom Still

MADISON – The rollout of the “Think. Make. Happen.” initiative at the Future Wisconsin Summit is the latest effort to pitch Wisconsin as a place for young workers to find opportunity, to put down roots and to balance life and career.

That three-word bumper sticker is shorthand for think big, make your mark and anything can happen in Wisconsin. It’s an ambitious initiative that will focus on young people already here as well as those who live elsewhere – in hopes they will check out what Wisconsin has to offer.

Wisconsin has a demographics problem. Economists and other experts have warned about a looming shortage of workers for years, and the crunch has finally hit home. Many companies can’t find enough young workers to replace retiring “Baby Boomers.” Even if those employers can find workers, they don’t always come with the skills required for the job.

The core problem is raw numbers. Assuming current trends continue, Wisconsin will have more retired workers than active workers within 15 years. Part of the problem is tied to a lower birth rate; part is “brain drain,” or out-migration; and part is a low attraction rate for workers who live elsewhere – whether that’s Indiana, India or many places in between.

Solving Wisconsin’s workforce puzzle will require keeping more students and young people at home by exposing them to overlooked opportunities in industries such as manufacturing, building trades, health care and tech.

It will also require persuading people outside the Badger State that life here has more to offer than beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

It will involve fully engaging people who might otherwise fall outside the workforce – the disabled, people getting out of the corrections system, people who can be weaned off social aid programs and people who didn’t succeed in their initial run through the schools.

It will also require a rational approach to immigration law, something many Wisconsin business leaders believe is crucial.

The role of “Think. Make. Happen.” in solving this problem is to carry out a bottom-up story-telling campaign that builds on values consistent with Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial history and reiterated in surveys of people inside and outside Wisconsin.

Among them was the Wisconsin Perception Survey in late 2015, which was completed by 2,000 people across a mix of online formats. Roughly 1,300 people from Wisconsin took the survey, which was coordinated by the Wisconsin Technology Council, along with 700 others from 47 of the remaining 49 states.

The in-state group was older, slightly more male and decidedly angrier than the out-of-state group, which was younger, more female and much less likely to harbor negative perceptions of Wisconsin – beyond a few mental shivers over cold winters.

Common to both the in-state and out-of-state groups was limited recognition of career opportunities in Wisconsin beyond the stereotypical cheese, milk and more cheese.

Imbedded in the Perception Survey data and a later, larger survey by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. was a sense of values that matter to millennials. Some examples:

  • Young people are often motivated first by selecting where they want to live, then finding a job. Millennials value the elusive life-work balance.
  • That balance is often defined by a diverse nightlife, creative activities and a sense of community that includes them, not just older generations.
  • The outdoors is important to most millennials. Parks and proximity to green space and recreational areas are a strong draw.
  • The right digital connections are a must. Communities without fast, reliable broadband connections might as well be located in Siberia. Young people won’t move to places that lack broadband and they certainly won’t start businesses there.
  • Millennials want to live where there are other millennials, who often share similar values and social tolerances. They shy away from places they perceive aren’t welcoming.

“We know that drawing attention to available jobs in the state is not enough to motivate the next generation of workers to pursue opportunities here,” said Tricia Braun, deputy secretary of WEDC. “We need to celebrate the positive experiences that Wisconsin offers, and the social connections being developed among people committed to our state’s economic future. There is a strong desire among young people to make a contribution to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

As “Think. Make. Happen.” unfolds, look for WEDC and others to paint a richer picture of what Wisconsin offers in terms of education, careers, community and quality of life.