Depending on where you live or work in the state, you might have a very different perspective on the aging face of Wisconsin.
If you’re in Dane County, where software company Epic boasts a 6,800-person workforce with an average age of 29, the world can look remarkably young, tattooed and pierced.
But if you are living in other — especially rural — parts of Wisconsin, you might find yourself taking part in a never-ending AARP meeting.
Of course, the aging of America is not just a Wisconsin phenomenon. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has predicted the percentage of people 65 and older will climb to nearly 20% by 2030 from about 13% just 10 years ago. It’s a global trend, too, especially in Europe and East Asia, where the graying of the population is even more dramatic than predicted for the United States.
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
The demographic challenge for Wisconsin is best summarized by a few statistics that help to explain why it’s also a workforce challenge, assuming patterns hold:
■ The state Department of Workforce Development predicts there will be more than 1 million job openings in Wisconsin through 2020, which include replacing about 680,000 baby boomers.
■ A study by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., predicted Wisconsin will create 317,000 additional jobs by 2020 — but produce a net of just 15,000 new workers.
■ The Wisconsin Applied Population Lab, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports the state is already the 20th oldest out of 50. By 2020, 24% of the state will be 60 and older; by 2030, more than 27% will be 60-plus.
The reasons for Wisconsin’s aging profile vary, from falling birthrates since 1965 to declining death rates, thanks to generally longer life spans.
One factor that contributes less than most people might imagine is so-called “brain drain,” or the loss of young, college-educated adults who earn a degree here and promptly shove off for greener pastures and warmer climates. Wisconsin’s brain drain, while sizable, is more or less the same as other Midwest states.
Where the state appears to suffer most is in “brain gain” — attracting young professionals from elsewhere. That’s what worries the business community the most, particularly as employers and economic development experts approach the challenge of filling tomorrow’s jobs.
The problem is simply stated: States with a larger, more skilled workforce are likely to win the economic growth sweepstakes over the coming decades.
“The Future Wisconsin Project” is one effort that includes a focus on talent development, attraction and retention. It’s led by the WMC Foundation, an offshoot of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, along with the Wisconsin Technical College System, the UW System and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. It has been holding discussions statewide to examine causes and solutions — or, at least, those within Wisconsin’s power to address.
A change in perception about Wisconsin might be a good starting point. Sure, we’ve got plenty of beer and brats, but our biotechnology and binary skills are world-class, too. Here are a few ideas:
■ Build on efforts to tie Wisconsin to major metropolitan areas just across our borders, such as Chicago and the Twin Cities. We live in the “I-Q Corridor,” with the letter I standing for interstate, innovation, intellectual property and investment, and the Q for quality of education, life and workforce. Let’s market that.
■ Encourage policy-makers to take a more aggressive stance on immigration reform, which would allow Wisconsin to attract more talent from abroad.
■ Sharpen the focus on improving K-12 education so that fewer students drop out or leave high school unprepared, especially in the state’s largest cities. Also, encourage more of those students to consider high-reward technical careers that may not involve a four-year degree right away.
■ Quit apologizing for attracting foreign and out-of-state students to UW System campuses. We need them and they more than pay their way in higher tuition.
■ Consider a state “rebranding” project — admittedly, not cheap — to send the message that Wisconsin offers a superb quality of life, innovative businesses, affordable business costs, a vibrant culture and more.
Many companies and communities in Wisconsin have proved they can pull in twenty- and thirtysomething workers. Instead of looking at those places through envious eyes, let’s try to learn what keeps them young.