Most indicators for state economy pointing up, but work remains

A collection of headlines in recent weeks spoke to the overall health of Wisconsin’s economy, even if other indicators demonstrate not everything is rosy — even in boom times.

  • For the first time, the total value of property in Madison and Dane County is estimated to be worth more than property in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. At $65 billion and $64.1 billion, respectively, that speaks to continued growth in the capital city, although Milwaukee County’s gross domestic product is still more than double that of Dane County. Wisconsin benefits from having two Top 100 cities.
  • Promega Corp., the biotech company that set the standard for other bioscience firms in Wisconsin, broke ground on a $190 million facility next to its Fitchburg headquarters in late July and announced a day later it will also move some production jobs from California to Wisconsin. That’s in addition to $150 million in Promega construction over the past five years.
  • Exact Sciences Corp., a cancer diagnostic company that has grown rapidly since moving to Madison less than a decade ago, broke ground in mid-August on a new headquarters building in University Research Park. In addition to its existing facilities in the park, Exact Sciences operates a laboratory on Madison’s South Side and is renovating the former Spectrum Brands building on the West Side.
  • When Inc. magazine announced its 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America, 43 Wisconsin firms were on the list — including No. 1 Swan Leap of Madison, which leverages transportation logistics through artificial intelligence, No. 7 Diamond Assets of Milton, and nine others in the top 1,000.
  • Two of Wisconsin’s success stories, ABC Supply and Epic, continue to grow by entering new markets (Epic) or acquisition (ABC Supply) and other strategies. A new entry, Foxconn Technology Group, is planting deeper roots almost by the week in places beyond Racine County.

While it’s tempting to look at individual events or rankings and conclude everything is on the upswing, some broader indicators also point to Wisconsin’s economic progress. Here are metrics from the latest publication of the Wisconsin Technology Council, “Pathways to Success: Four Strategies for Wisconsin.”

  • Net migration of people to Wisconsin has turned in the state’s favor since 2015, when about 7,000 more people left than moved in. In 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wisconsin added about 6,200 more people than it lost.
  • Wisconsin continues to show a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. average, steadily widening the gap since January 2014. Of course, low unemployment comes with a different problem: not enough workers, which is why net migration is important.
  • The average salary for tech workers in Wisconsin grew to $81,700 in 2017, according to the national Cyberstates report, which is well ahead of the statewide average salary but still in the middle of the pack among the 50 states.
  • Net tech employment in Wisconsin has climbed every year since 2011, according to Cyberstates, to about 212,000 in 2017. Bioscience employment, which is charted separately, has also increased.
  • Among those states that test 100% of students, Wisconsin is tied for first in average American College Test scores. We don’t lack for smart kids; we just need to keep more of them here.
  • Investments in young companies by angel networks, angel funds, and venture capital firms totaled $500 million in the past two years and nearly $1.4 billion since 2011, although most of the nation’s venture capital is still clustered in three states — California, New York, and Massachusetts.

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Some indicators are basically flat, at least in relation to other states: population; real personal income per capita; real gross domestic product; total exports; people obtaining bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 25 years old; and total patents issued.

Others are lagging: federal research and development dollars (a national trend); federal Small Business Innovation Research awards; Wisconsin university spending on research and development; and people obtaining advanced college degrees by 25.

The flat and lagging categories speak to the need to reinvest in higher education and other workforce growth strategies. Individual companies can’t carry the load alone. Long-term success depends on the right combination of ideas, investment, and a trained workforce. Wisconsin is humming along right now, but it cannot take progress for granted.

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