By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – One of Wisconsin’s lagging economic indicators over decades has been “net migration,” the term for describing the numerical difference between how many people move from the state versus those who move in.

There are indications that Wisconsin may be reversing the slide at precisely the right time, given its aging workforce and the national competition for talent.

Wisconsin gained nearly 6,200 more people than it lost in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures that examined both domestic and international migration. That followed a six-year span in which Wisconsin lost an average of 4,000 more people than it gained each year to migration.

It’s not a recent story. Wisconsin has been a net migration loser in most post-World War II decades, the data shows. The principal reason is not that Wisconsin suffers from excessive “brain drain,” but that has fared worse over time than the nation’s high-growth states in terms of “brain gain,” meaning attracting people from elsewhere.

One year does not make a trend, but there are anecdotal reasons to suggest a shift is occurring.

A recent study by the National Association of Realtors examined which U.S. communities were leaders in the percentage of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who bought homes in about 200 of the nation’s largest housing markets within a one-year period. Appleton in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley was No. 1, with 57 percent of its mortgages issued to millennials.

The report cited ready-to-move-in houses, cost, entertainment and arts options, schools and other quality of life advantages as working in Appleton’s favor. More generally, it noted that millennials bought 36 percent of the nation’s housing stock last year, making them the largest single demographic group to buy homes.

“They may be buying homes in big numbers, but they can’t afford to do so in the nation’s largest, most expensive cities,” the report noted. “Instead, many younger buyers are opting for more affordable – an unexpected – parts of the country.”

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna viewed the report as an indicator that “great things are happening” in his city.

“The report seems to verify what I’ve been hearing anecdotally: People are choosing to move from Appleton from other places around the country,” Hanna said. “It’s what we have been trying to accomplish for many years. Maybe our hard work is finally starting to pay off.”

Counting Appleton, six of the top 10 millennial housing markets in percentage terms were Midwest cities. Others were Des Moines, Iowa; Duluth, Minn.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Evansville, Ind.

While not as scientific as census data, the North American Moving Services report has charted household moves for years. It showed Wisconsin as a “balanced” state in terms of in-bound and out-bound household moves in 2017, a change from recent years.

Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, California and Michigan were the nation’s top out-bound states while Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee led the inbound states.

What’s working? That’s a bit of a guessing game, although it may come down to efforts by individual cities or regions to stand out.

A prime example is the “Make it in Milwaukee” project that is run through NEWaukee, a nine-year-old group that uses social gatherings and other events to portray the city as an exciting place for millennials to live, work and play.

NEWaukee’s Chief Idea Officer, Jeremy Fojut, and his team developed a high-touch way of helping regional companies find talent that goes far beyond typical head-hunting tours. It introduces college students, predominantly from outside Wisconsin, to what Fojut calls “the real Milwaukee,” helping them see the city through the lens of people who live there.

The success rate so far has been impressive. At Advocate Aurora, to cite one corporate example, about 70 percent of the people who have taken part in a three-day “Make it in Milwaukee” immersion have received job offers. All of them have accepted.

In Madison, recent ratings are also encouraging: The city was ranked No. 1 nationally by CBRE Group Inc. for its concentration of millennial workers, and No. 2 nationally by the Brookings Institution for the percentage of college graduates among millennials.

The nationwide competition for talent is real and the winners may be those states, regions and cities that make a compelling case that combines economic opportunity and quality of life. Wisconsin can make the case it has both.

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