Looking back on the year: Hits, walks, and a few whiffs

Part of the fun of writing a regular column is looking back to see what ideas and even predictions stuck. That same hindsight can also be a curse, especially when you’re wrong. With the calendar marching on, it’s time to review selected column themes with my on-base percentage in mind:

Jan. 14, 2021: “It will take more than a year to connect people in Wisconsin’s communications deserts to competitive, high-speed internet. Still, the elements are in place to dramatically improve access with the decade.” Hit. That was my reaction to Gov. Tony Evers’ “Year of Broadband Access” declaration, and it’s holding true. Progress is being made, thanks to a combination of government and private initiatives, but only so many fiber-optic lines and small-cell transmitters can be installed at once. Best guess: Wisconsin is 92% wired for high-speed internet overall; 75% in rural areas. Work remains to be done.

Jan. 21, 2021: “Here’s an open invitation to California companies and entrepreneurs looking for a change of scenery. Come to Wisconsin.” Whiff. While census data and other studies show California’s population growth slumping and more people moving out of the Golden State than moving in, my one-man pitch to lure Californians to the Badger state hasn’t borne fruit yet. Statistics show that when Californians do move, they don’t stray far — usually to places such as the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountain states. Maybe that will change as the West Coast drought deepens and more Californians heed the wisdom of my advice.

Beginning Feb. 18, 2021: A series of columns made the case that Wisconsin could benefit from more state venture and angel capital investment to foster young companies, not just in the big cities but statewide. More than once, I noted that previous such initiatives were bipartisan. Walk. Although many legislators were intrigued by Evers’ plan for a $100-million fund, they also heard conflicting messages. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of Republican enthusiasm to give the Democratic governor a victory. Because past state investments have generally worked, a tweaked plan may reemerge after the fall elections.

Throughout 2021: Workforce growth was a recurring theme. A February column noted that Madison and Milwaukee are attracting tech workers from elsewhere. Two columns in March pointed to the importance of keeping home-grown talent home. Columns in June and December stressed attracting and retaining highly trained immigrants. A May 13 column challenged the notion that extended federal unemployment benefits were the main reason why employers weren’t filling jobs. Hit. “Finding talent has been a challenge for some business sectors in Wisconsin for years, for reasons that range from baby boomer retirements to ‘brain drain’ to the need for retraining of (displaced) workers. Other reasons include … a shortage of affordable housing in some places, child care issues for people who might work later shifts, and compensation at a time when inflation is on the rise.” The more people study the stats, the more it appears labor shortages aren’t just a matter of “competing with the couch” but a mix of overlapping causes.

July 8, 2021: “Wisconsin has an advantage over many states in that its rural hospital system is strong and generally held up during the peak of the pandemic. Other states are not so fortunate, and intense rural outbreaks could lead to overrun facilities and lack of treatment.” Whiff. Wisconsin’s high-quality rural hospitals are now struggling, mainly because they serve populations in which too many people refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19. At what point will the medical community declare, “No vaccination? Go to the back of the treatment line.” That won’t happen, precisely because medical professionals care so much — even for people who refuse to help themselves and their neighbors.

July 22, 2021: “Renewed interest in space starts with unlocking the secrets of the universe. It is about better understanding our origins, and about making practical advances in science and technology that will improve life on Earth.” Hit. The Christmas Day launch of the James Webb Telescope, which will peer into the birth of stars many billions of years ago, is the latest example. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos may have gotten more ink for their voyages into space, but the telescope will teach us more about ourselves and our surroundings as 2022 matures.

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