By Tom Still

MADISON – As he stood before a crowd at the annual economic forecast luncheon of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, Gov. Scott Walker was upbeat about what 2017 promises for the state. His caveat, however, was all about people.

To be specific, Walker wants to ensure there are enough people ready, willing and able to take part in Wisconsin’s under-pressure workforce.

It’s a theme Walker can be expected to sound in his State of the State speech, his annual budget address and at many other stops along the way this year as policymakers confront Wisconsin’s workforce shortage.

“Workforce development is going to be the number one priority moving forward, because if you improve the workforce of the state, we improve the economic vitality of the state, and we improve the ability to expand jobs and prosperity to the state,” Walker told the bankers group.

That statement alone is Economics 101: Most experts agree that having the right workforce in place is essential to the economic health of nations, states and communities.

However, Walker’s previews are revealing a far more comprehensive plan to confront Wisconsin’s demographic crunch through educating, retaining, recruiting, rehabilitating or otherwise cajoling every worker possible.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach that reflects the seriousness of the problem.

Like many states, Wisconsin faces a wave of Baby Boomer retirements – only more so. Also, birth rates have declined, as reflected in school enrollment figures, and out-migration of workers (the so-called “brain drain”) remains an issue. Wisconsin is also low on the list of states that attract immigrants, who often fill workforce gaps. Unless trends change within 10 years or so, there could be fewer working adults in Wisconsin than there are retirees.

The Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, led by business leader Mark Tyler, has been researching challenges and possible solutions for more than a year. That group’s work builds upon the efforts of past workforce commissions, the state Department of Workforce Development and other public and private bodies.

Many strategies on the table fall outside classic workforce development tools, which have focused for years on skills training for displaced workers. Many new ideas aim to fill what is increasingly a “body gap” versus a skills gap.

Walker spoke of “leaving no one on the sidelines,” referencing a broad spectrum of people: Those who are released from Wisconsin’s correctional system; those with mental or physical disabilities; veterans returning from military service; people recovering from addictions; and people receiving public assistance.

He also spoke of exposing young people to career options at a much earlier age (experts say high school is often too late), putting more money into school-community “fab labs” and improving apprenticeship programs with the help of businesses and schools.

Look for Walker’s welfare reform initiative to include easing people off assistance and into jobs, with requirements for regular job searches and drug testing. His latest proposals to fight opioid addiction, which are so far attracting bipartisan support, carry with them the notion that rehabilitation and treatment are the first steps to returning addicts to the workforce.

He also noted the skills and work ethic of returning veterans. “My goal is to have zero – not one veteran, particularly those who are returning from deployment – who comes home wanting for a job when they return home to the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.

For some free-market Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Walker’s proposals may verge on social engineering because he is simultaneously prodding and persuading ex-inmates, welfare recipients and others to join the workforce. If a few carrots come with the sticks, however, even Adam Smith might approve.

Many Democrats may ask how Walker can talk about workforce development now while spending less on higher education and K-12 schools over time. It remains to be seen if and how his 2017-2019 budget proposal addresses their concerns.

To some degree, Walker is banking on President-elect Trump doing what he said he would do: Give states more leeway to design their own social, education, health and economic programs without too many federal strings. That may be trusting the Tweeter-in-Chief a bit too much, but it would help if states had more flexibility.

Wisconsin’s workforce shortage wasn’t created overnight and it won’t be quickly solved, either. Putting a lot of ideas into play now may pay dividends later.