Some glitzier cities get ink, but Madison, Milwaukee gaining tech workers

“Go Toward the Heat” trumpeted the Feb. 2 headline in the New York Times business section, which led into a story about Miami, Florida’s success in luring tech companies and investment firms migrating from New York’s Wall Street and California’s Silicon Valley.

It described Miami’s assets, its open-door culture, and high-touch recruiting by Mayor Francis X. Suarez, who has made business recruitment a priority for his sunny and diverse city.

All accurate. Meanwhile, it’s just as true that two Wisconsin cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are performing well in the race for tech talent in the nation’s COVID-19 era.

In a recent column about the Silicon Valley exodus, I noted reasons companies, people, and money should put Wisconsin on the short list for relocation.

They included quality of life, available talent trained by good schools, competitive business costs, a strong research and development tradition, ample water supplies, and location in what I call the “I-Q Corridor,” the interstate band that connects Wisconsin with two regional powerhouses, Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. My “move to Wisconsin” list doesn’t include palm trees and Miami’s South Beach, but it does include a year-round attractiveness that can offer the right mix for many people.

The numbers are beginning to bear that out.

Milwaukee and Madison are both regularly ranked as top destinations for workers, especially techies. Milwaukee was recently ranked No. 2 for “remote workers” by Financebuzz.com. The annual U-Haul survey, which basically counts moves in and out from various locations, scored Milwaukee 13th among its top 25 cities.

In addition to scoring fifth on the U-Haul survey, Madison was ranked No. 1 among cities of all sizes with the nation’s biggest tech talent influx. The LinkedIn study showed Madison was gaining 1.02 tech workers per each one that left in 2019; in 2020, that ratio climbed to 1.77, an increase of 74%.

No other city was even relatively close in percentage terms to Madison in the LinkedIn research. Cleveland, Sacramento, the Twin Cities, and Hartford, Connecticut, were next, all ranging from 20% to 15% on the plus side. The biggest losers were the San Francisco Bay area (35%), New York (20%), and Boston (18%).

Another survey by CompTIA, one of the nation’s largest associations for tech companies, was less pessimistic about coastal tech hubs but ranked Madison 18th in its annual Tech Town Index. “Tech job postings are growing here — from 14,617 in 2018 to 16,701 in the past 12 months,” CompTIA reported in November 2020.

Individual rankings can always be disputed, of course, but the collective message is one of opportunity.

Madison, Milwaukee, and other emerging tech hubs in Wisconsin have a chance to capitalize on dislocations brought on by the pandemic as well as disgruntlement with conditions in traditional tech centers, whether those be environmental, regulatory, or related to business costs.

“Now is the time to welcome tech workers back to the state — those with ‘alumni’ connections whether that is they lived here, worked here, or graduated from here,” said Kathy Henrich, CEO for the Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition and a scheduled guest in a Feb. 10 Tech Council webinar. “To be successful in attracting them back to the state, we need to show them that we are already a tech hub — which we are — including local tech career and developmental opportunities, even as remote workers.”

It’s almost a Wisconsin genetic trait not to brag, but a dash of boasting by public officials and private-sector executives alike could go a long way. Wisconsin also needs to stop beating itself up over conditions that may no longer be true. For example, state and local taxes paid by Wisconsin individuals and businesses has dipped as a share of income for nine straight years, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

A wave of economic and workforce transition is on its way. Wisconsin can choose to ride the crest or watch as it passes by.

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