Wisconsin is facing a very real challenge. Our state needs to grow its residential workforce not by hundreds of people a year, but by thousands of people each year for the next twenty years to meet the projected workforce demands in the key economic clusters around Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s workforce development needs and opportunities are both structural and situational. The structural issues are primary and causative (e.g., shrinking birth rates; low in-migration; aging populations; educational infrastructure alignments). The situational issues tend to be symptomatic eruptions of the structural challenges (e.g., workforce shortages; rising retirement rates; eroding tax bases; skill gaps).

There is a great deal of good workforce development work going on in Wisconsin. Understandably and appropriately, most local and regional workforce development efforts have been and are focused on addressing the situational issues affecting their employers and communities. In support of these local and regional efforts, institutions of higher learning, the technical college community, and the preK-12 schools have made significant progress in student career planning and in aligning with each other, employers and their communities more effectively. State policy makers, agencies, and commissions particularly the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the Governor’s Commission on Workforce Investment have worked with regional and local community, economic and workforce development leaders in support of their efforts. In addition, State policy makers, agencies, and commissions particularly the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, developed a new state driven marketing campaign that could be used to enhance local and regional recruitment and retention efforts.

With the exception of the State’s new marketing campaign, efforts to address Wisconsin’s structural workforce shortage issues thus far have been tactical and geographically and/or skill targeted. For example:
  • Several communities around the state (e.g., Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, LaCrosse) are engaged in “talent upload” initiatives dedicated to bringing potential young workers (e.g., college and tech school seniors, and other recent graduates) to visit their communities. Results are encouraging at a local scale.
  • Hospitals and other health care providers regularly recruit in excess of 600 out-of-state physicians annually, primarily by offering to offset their student debts.
  • The UW System and the WTCS are working with communities and employers to enhance Information Technology education and training opportunities and some of this work may attract out-of-state students.

Current situational workforce development initiatives referenced have made an invaluable contribution to critical local and regional efforts to help employers find the workers they need. But, we must acknowledge that unless Wisconsin addresses it structural, causational issues, Wisconsin’s supply of workers will continue to shrink and the situational workforce development initiatives will run out of the talent they need to make their plans work.

It is also important to note that recent events have added a new “must address” item to Wisconsin’s already long and complicated list of workforce shortage needs. The new challenge is, for lack of better phrase, an opportunity driven, workforce dependent crisis. These unique workforce shortages are caused by a new event and hallmarked by two specific characteristics, the first being that the opportunity will be lost unless the need is met and the second being that unless the need is met strategically, it may/will adversely affect others sectors of the economy. Two immediate examples come to mind, including:
  • A shortage of building trades workers has hit Wisconsin’s home building and housing market hard, leading to a shortage of new homes and increasing prices for buyers.
  • FoxConn estimates that over the next four years it will need more than 3,000 construction workers to build its massive new facility in Southeastern Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s options of addressing this need is either to use Wisconsin workers which would exacerbate construction shortages elsewhere around the state; and/or recruit out of state construction crews to do the work, which would disadvantage local and regional workers close to the site; and or come up with something different.