Diverse workforce challenges require a mix of strategies for Wisconsin

Workforce development means different things to different people — which is why the term carries emotional and political weight across Wisconsin, from its small towns to its major cities.

It also explains why policymakers must aspire to devise a balanced approach to meeting Wisconsin’s diverse workforce needs.

If you live in a city where a significant percentage of young adults don’t even graduate from high school, workforce development is about survival: avoiding a lifetime of low-wage jobs and living on the edge.

If home is rural Wisconsin and some of your best and brightest young people believe they must move away for brighter futures, it means something else: stopping the “brain drain” and saving your community.

If you’re a plant manager, the term carries still another meaning: hiring people who want to work and learn, no matter what educational degrees those workers might hold.

And if you’re an executive in a tech-based company, workforce development is about finding skilled workers at home or abroad who fit comfortably into a “live, work, play” lifestyle that exists in some Wisconsin cities but not all.

For the array of state policymakers, business leaders, educators, economists, demographers, and others who confront Wisconsin’s workforce development challenges almost daily, it is hard to come up with a single answer to the problems.

Solutions aimed at helping displaced 50-something workers probably won’t keep young people at home, and strategies devised to satisfy manufacturers aren’t likely to fill voids in high-growth sectors with specific technical needs.

That’s why a mix of remedies is needed to address Wisconsin’s emerging workforce needs, which collectively stand in the way of greater prosperity for the state and its residents.

That point was brought home during this month’s Lake Superior Business & Technology Conference in Ashland, where much of the agenda was devoted to understanding workforce challenges locally and statewide.

“Business and industry today face competition in the world marketplace that we’ve never faced before,” said Doug Moquin, a retired Phillips Plastics Corp. executive who still advises industry and serves on several workforce development boards. “There is a constant challenge today to find talented workers — at a time when too many workers have given up on the workforce.”

By “giving up on the workforce,” Moquin means many workers have simply dropped out, either because their skills are no longer in demand or because they can’t find a job that’s right for them. In a state like Wisconsin, with a population that is skewing slightly older, losing talent to workforce dropout only makes the shortages worse.

Moquin also noted that not every worker is created equal. There was a time in history, as late as a generation ago, when semi-skilled workers could find jobs and hold them until they retired. That’s not true in a world that is increasingly dependent on the top half of the talent pool for economic growth.



Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, addressed the same point from a different angle — educational attainment.

“A high school degree is not going to get it done for the vast majority of our citizens,” Foy said. By 2018, she added, 60% of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary education.

She also cited what she called the “1:2:7” ratio, which has remained basically unchanged for decades in the United States. That ratio suggests that for every one worker with a professional degree, there are two others with four-year college degrees and seven more with something less than a bachelor’s degree. Those seven are workers the tech colleges aspire to educate, Foy said.

For those involved in building Wisconsin’s workforce, the political temptation is to focus on a few high-profile sectors or demographics and let everyone else fend for themselves. The better long-term approach is to look for a mix of solutions that will help educate, train, attract, and retain workers across a range of sectors and disciplines.

Ten years from now, Wisconsin will need more welders and tradesmen — and more data scientists and engineers. There’s no reason not to pursue both goals.

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