By Tom Still

OK, already … enough with the cheese hype!

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from a survey conducted as part of the larger “Future Wisconsin Project,” which involves some of the state’s leading business groups, higher education and parts of state government.

Based on responses from more than 2,000 people who took the online survey this fall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Wisconsin and cheese are synonymous. When asked for words to describe Wisconsin, cheesewas the No. 1 answer from people who live within and outside the state.

That’s not a bad thing — except the same respondents who listed cheese as their top-of-mind descriptor also think Wisconsin has little to offer in the way of jobs beyond a career in curds, Colby and cheddar.

When asked what kind of jobs they would expect to find in Wisconsin, respondents selected agriculture first (dairy makes up the bulk of it), health care second and food production third from a list of 10 choices.

There’s nothing wrong with working in the dairy industry — thousands of people do so happily. But that sector is a statistically declining source of jobs in Wisconsin. Almost every other sector, including manufacturing, financial services, technology and health care, is adding jobs and having trouble finding enough people to fill them.

At a time when Wisconsin needs to attract and retain more talent, it’s vital to tell people — especially those who live outside the state — about the much broader job opportunities here. But short of scrapping the “America’s Dairyland” license plate or usurping the advertising budget of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, is there a way to get that word out?

That question was a theme of the Dec. 9 Future Wisconsin Economic Summit in Madison, where more than 400 people heard about the state’s workforce shortages, its emerging business sectors and strategies for branding Wisconsin as an excellent place to live, work and play. The conference was produced by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Conducted with help from the Wisconsin Technology Council, the “Wisconsin State of Mind” perception survey was admittedly unscientific because of its open-ended, all-comers nature.

Its findings should nevertheless be taken into account by policy-makers, business leaders and others who must communicate about Wisconsin in a world where image often counts for more than fact.

Roughly 1,300 people from Wisconsin took the survey, 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.

Other than weather, none of the top 10 one-word descriptors used by the out-of-state respondents was remotely critical of the state. Three of the top 10 used by the in-state respondents were far less kind: corrupt, divided and backward.

It appears Badger State denizens are not only reticent to tout the state’s advantages, they’re quick to beat up on Wisconsin over its flaws.

Wisconsin got high marks from both survey groups for its outdoors, recreational choices, cost of living, public safety, education system and sense of community. It was dinged on job opportunities, pay and social tolerance by insiders and outsiders alike.

Asked to list three states where they would consider relocating, out-of-state respondents listed California, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina and Washington in the top five — but Wisconsin was an encouraging sixth.

People inside Wisconsin offered a similar relocation list but placed Minnesota at the top and dropped California to fifth.

Speaking to summit attendees, WMC Foundation President Jim Morgan said the survey and a separate benchmark report on state economic indicators revealed “Wisconsin has a very well-kept secret: It has job opportunities, and not all of them are in agriculture.”

What happens next? The Future Wisconsin group, which includes the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Technical College System and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, will look for ways to act on findings.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. will gather more feedback on a branding campaign that may turn on one of three phrases: “Can Do,” “Be Bold” or “Ever Forward.”

Skeptics warn that Wisconsin has flirted with branding efforts in the past, only to get it wrong or to fail to spend what it takes. Perhaps history will repeat itself — or maybe this time the state will recognize it must slice a big block of cheese if it hopes to attract and retain tomorrow’s workers.