By Tom Still

MADISON – Here’s a pop quiz only an economist would love: Wisconsin metropolitan areas showing robust growth between July 2003 and July 2004 were (a) Madison (b) Green Bay (c) La Crosse or (d) Milwaukee-Waukesha.

Statistically speaking, the only wrong answer is (a) Madison. Although the unemployment rate in Wisconsin’s capital city remains the lowest in the state at 2.4 percent, the year-to-year growth rate in the Madison area was barely a blip on the screen. Why? As many government jobs disappeared in the Madison area as the private sector was able to create.

Meanwhile, Green Bay has emerged as a national leader in job growth, and the Milwaukee-Waukesha and La Crosse areas showed renewed strength, as well.

Surprised? So are others who have reviewed the latest U.S. Department of Labor statistics, as well as a similar study of major metropolitan areas conducted by American City Business Journals Inc., the publishers of The Business Journal in Milwaukee. The numbers deserve notice in a political year in which jobs are a big issue.

The survey by American City Business Journals Inc. of 226 metro areas showed Milwaukee-Waukesha 18th on the job creation list with 12,400 new positions. The increase from 920,400 jobs to 932,800 jobs was 1.3 percent, or 72nd best on the list. The growth rate nationally was 1.1 percent.

Green Bay weighed in 32nd overall in creating jobs – and 5th in percentage growth at 4.1 percent. La Crosse was 84th overall and 32nd in percentage growth (2.2), Eau Claire was 97th overall and 59th in percentage growth (1.6), and Wausau was 132nd and 106th in percentage growth (0.7). Madison was a below-average 156th overall and showed no percentage growth, placing it 160th on the list.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report helped to explain why Madison, which is often touted for its private sector growth, was relatively flat in total employment. Madison is the center of state government, which has been downsized by Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature as they attempt to keep state spending under control. While Madison’s tech and service sectors continue to churn out jobs, it is basically breaking even with the decline in government payrolls.

According to federal statistics, Wisconsin ranked behind only a half-dozen states in cutting government jobs in the past year or so. All of those states are larger: California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri. In percentage terms, Wisconsin appears to rank No. 1 in shedding government jobs. (Unfortunately, some were federal jobs the state would have preferred to keep.)

The state grew in nearly every other job sector tracked by the Labor Department, showing 1.7 percent job growth (48,800 jobs) since mid-2003. The state’s unemployment rate of 4.6 percent is down from 5.8 percent a year earlier and compares to 5.7 percent nationally.

Then again, much depends on where you live in Wisconsin. Cities below the U.S. unemployment average are Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah (3.8 percent), Eau Claire (3.9), Green Bay (4.0), La Crosse (3.3), Milwaukee-Waukesha (5.3), Sheboygan (4.7), Wausau (3.6) and Madison (2.4). Above the national average are Janesville-Beloit (7.9 percent), Kenosha (5.9 percent) and Racine (7.2 percent). All three lost manufacturing jobs during the recession that began in 2000.

Green Bay’s total employment grew by 4.6 percent, according to the Labor Department, while La Crosse grew by 2.9 percent and Milwaukee-Waukesha by 1.5 percent. All other cities either grew by less than 1 percent or lost jobs.

For Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Wisconsin’s employment numbers explain why his tight in-state race against Republican George Bush. As the state regains prosperity and jobs, it will become harder for Kerry to argue it’s time for a change – at least, on economic issues alone. Those same numbers bode well for Doyle and state legislators, who tightened government belts and who may soon benefit from a modest economic boom.

Wisconsin isn’t out of the woods yet. If the Milwaukee-Waukesha numbers are broken down into Milwaukee and Waukesha, it’s clear that most growth in that region is taking place in Waukesha County. Statewide, the urban-rural economic divide is still wide. But as Wisconsin retools, employs the latest technology and creates more jobs that require brains as well as brawn, the state is positioning itself for a brighter economic future.

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