By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – If you’re one of 10,000 Microsoft workers slated for layoff soon, there’s very little solace in being told it’s part of a “Big Tech” efficiency trend that now extends to more than 154,000 layoffs in less than a year. After all, it wasn’t your fault many of the industry’s household names over-hired during the pandemic and the short boom that followed.
It’s also important to keep a sense of perspective: Your long-term options may be better than you think, especially in an economy still hungry for talent. One such employment option may be Wisconsin.
Whether it is through remote work or physically moving, tech workers who have lost jobs since layoffs began may find themselves landing on their feet sooner than imagined. It might not be in Seattle or Silicon Valley, but it could be in one of America’s emerging tech hubs in the Heartland – either remotely or by relocating for an improved quality of life.
The national unemployment rate was 3.5% in December 2022, below what many economists describe as a “full employment rate” of 4%. In Wisconsin, the jobless rate was 2.8% for December, meaning there are plenty of companies – tech, manufacturing or otherwise – looking for people with skills.
Those companies may not be able to offer a coastal salary, but they can provide intangibles. Tech workers don’t often move for tax cuts, but they do relocate for attractive places to live and work.
Many surveys have ranked Wisconsin high in that department. For example, an annual “Top 100 Places to Live” ranking by Livability.com in mid-2022 included six mid-sized Wisconsin cities: Madison (No. 1), Waukesha (No. 12), Appleton (No. 39), Green Bay (No. 74); Eau Claire (No. 78) and La Crosse (No. 89). Larger cities such as Milwaukee weren’t included in the Livability.com rankings, but the Cream City has showed up on similar lists.
The kind of skills that make for a productive worker at Microsoft, Meta, Salesforce or Amazon can translate pretty easily into some of Wisconsin’s strong business sectors, such as finance, insurance, healthcare, energy and advanced manufacturing.
There is also every chance current woes within Big Tech will be short-lived. Major tech companies probably over-hired, but the tech industry isn’t about to stop growing. Because all types of businesses and industries recognize they need better technology to compete, sectors such as analytics, artificial intelligence, automation and cybersecurity will remain on an upward curve.
Microsoft is one example. Its layoff announcement came as the company was rumored to be expanding its investment in OpenAI, the company that developed ChatGPT. That artificial intelligence platform has caused excitement – and some trepidation – since previewing in late November. ChatGPT is a text-based chatbot that can draft prose, poetry or even computer code on command; Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI in 2019.
Amazon is another. It has slowed its warehouse expansion, but it still added space in 2022 equal to about half of Walmart’s distribution capacity. It has announced about 18,000 layoffs; it still has a workforce of about 1.46 million people.
Still, there are trickle-down threats to the overall economy – and startup companies. Slowed inflation and the possibility of reduced interest rate hikes could lessen the threat of a recession, unless the markets manage to talk themselves into one. Failure to resolve the federal debt ceiling problem would hurt, too.
Angel and venture capitalists react to market trends, and they could continue their caution about new investments in favor of protecting those already in their portfolios. Larger tech companies sometimes acquire startups, so that could mean fewer profitable exits for emerging tech firms as they follow more austere paths.
Those trends could affect Wisconsin as much as any state, but the state may also offer opportunities for laid-off tech workers in search of a job. The workforce “body gap” isn’t going away, and certainly not in Wisconsin.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.