Looking ahead to 2012: Some business trends worth tracking

So long, 2011, a year in which the economy flirted with recovery, and welcome to 2012, a year that may spring out of the blocks but encounter hurdles down the track. Here are some trends worth following.

So long, 2011, a year in which the economy flirted with recovery, and welcome to 2012, a year that may spring out of the blocks but encounter hurdles down the track. Here are some trends worth following.

Turning entrepreneurs into job-builders: Even as other economic indicators rebound, the unemployment rate seems stuck at around 8.5% nationally and 7% in Wisconsin. Then again, the definition of “back to work” is changing. More people are employing themselves as they pursue start-up ventures launched when their 9-to-5 careers faded.

Some reports show Wisconsin is slowly escaping the bottom tier of states when it comes to creating new businesses, thanks in part to organized mentors, angel investors, small-business incubators, and business and entrepreneurial networks.

Connecting Wisconsin with venture capital: A bill creating a state-leveraged venture capital fund will likely surface in the state Capitol in January, as key members of the Senate and Assembly appear near agreement on major provisions.

Such a bill would make the state a limited partner in a “fund-of-funds” that would help turn promising young companies into larger firms. About 30 states have adopted similar strategies over time. Success for start-ups won’t happen overnight, however, so let’s hope the state is a patient investor.

Building a NextGen Natural Resource economy: Striking a balance between creating jobs and protecting the environment will pose challenges for policymakers. State lawmakers will consider expediting a proposed iron mine in Iron and Ashland counties, where a need for jobs is countered by concerns for water quality. Another emerging industry is mining to produce sand needed to extract natural gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing of deep shale formations. Again, the main issue is protecting groundwater – not only in the sand mines, but also in gas-drilling sites around the country.

Wisconsin can attract and retain businesses with its clean and abundant supplies of water – something not every state or region can claim. The Public Service Commission will continue to pursue innovative water pricing strategies, including rates that promote efficient water use and economic growth. The PSC also hopes to work with utilities on water-metering technologies that can help evaluate demand patterns and trends. Wisconsin is a hub for water technology solutions through emerging companies, academic research, and smart regulations. Let’s use that combination to our advantage.

Encouraging trade and foreign direct investment: Wisconsin has benefited from a booming export economy, especially when it comes to high-quality manufactured products, medical technologies, and food products. When the 2011 figures come in, don’t be surprised if Wisconsin shatters the 2010 record of $19.8 billion in total exports. Also vital is foreign direct investment, which is globalizing Wisconsin’s economy in ways that create jobs, expand supply chains, open the doors to new markets, and provide needed investment dollars.

Wisconsin cannot possibly consume or sell everything it produces at home or even nationally. That’s why exports and foreign investment are flip sides of the same coin. They represent Wisconsin’s ability to build, produce, and grow what the world needs – and to attract investment from markets that understands the state’s strengths.

Educating tomorrow’s workers now: Most colleges and universities in Wisconsin continue to see enrollment surges as people realize education is often the pathway to “knowledge economy” jobs. The trick is starting the education process earlier, which explains public and private efforts to encourage more middle- and high-school students to take science, technology, engineering, and math courses. Some states have committed to STEM education in significant ways; Wisconsin should do the same if it wants to counter a coming demographic crunch as the baby boom generation retires and there are shortages of skilled workers.

On the other end of the spectrum, expect higher education to examine how efficiently it moves technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. Some states are taking the speed bumps out of their technology transfer processes; Wisconsin can do the same.

Making technology work for people: If 2011 was the year when Wall Street and Big Banking heard loudly from the man and woman on the street, perhaps 2012 will be the year when Big Tech gets an earful.

Privacy concerns continue to dog Facebook. Proposed “piracy” legislation may threaten the Internet. Attempts to ban all cellphone use by drivers are possible, given the National Transportation Safety Board’s recent recommendation. The Obama administration must decide if it really wants to extend broadband coverage – or simply block mergers. And Amazon.com appears intent on turning brick-and-mortar retailers into showrooms via consumers armed with price-check apps and Amazon discounts for doing the company’s research. The good news: There’s a fresh new year in which to sort it all out.