The labor shortage is the biggest challenge facing Wisconsin businesses and, thus, the Wisconsin economy. As a result, state business leaders need Gov. Tony Evers and the legislature to include tangible measures to address the problem in the state budget, which is the only piece of legislation that is required to be enacted during the biennium.
As the largest business association in Wisconsin, we have a few suggestions based on comprehensive research commissioned by the Wisconsin Manufacturer & Commerce Foundation’s Future Wisconsin Project.
First, as a state with births below the rate of replacement for the last 20-plus years, we need to retain as many born- and-raised Wisconsinites as possible. The best way to do that is to make sure young people are exposed to the diverse and rewarding professions the Wisconsin economy has to offer so they can make informed career choices.
That is one of the reasons WMC asked Gov. Evers’ predecessor to proclaim October as Manufacturing Month in Wisconsin. The goal is to get as many young students as possible to visit a local manufacturing facility so they can see firsthand what advanced manufacturing looks like and whether it matches their career interests.
But manufacturing isn’t the only sector with a workforce shortage. In fact, I can’t think of any sector that isn’t having difficulty finding workers. To help, Gov. Evers and state lawmakers can provide funding in the budget for more instructors to teach students technical skills that are in demand, such as welding, machining, carpentry, plumbing, pipefitting, electrical, tool-and-die making, automotive maintenance, millwright, metal fabrication and computer programming.
The final state budget also should include allocations for schools to acquire the specialized equipment necessary to train students for the aforementioned professions. This includes items such as welding bays, computer numeric control (CNC) machines and tools for wood and metal shop classes.
The budget should expand funding for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and, to the extent possible, encourage internships and job shadowing for K-12 students. Again, students can then learn what they want to do and, just as important, what they don’t want to do when they grow up.
STEM, dual enrollment and job training opportunities should be included in each K- 12 school’s accountability report cards compiled by the Department of Public Instruction as a way of showing parents whether their local schools are meeting the needs of their students and of the economy.
This leads into another important aspect of filling the skills gap. Apprenticeships are an invaluable way to help young Wisconsinites get career ready, and they
should be widely available both in high school and after graduation. Wisconsin should increase investments in apprenticeships to help students understand why a four-year degree is not the only way to find a worthwhile and meaningful career.
Apprenticeships can help fill the void in numerous industry sectors, and the next generation could join the workforce with little to no student debt.
Finally, Wisconsin simply has a population gap. More jobs are available than we have people who are unemployed. We can tackle this on two fronts: talent attraction and bringing disengaged groups into the workforce. For talent attraction, we strongly encourages policymakers to expand funding for the state’s marketing campaign, intended to lure workers from neighboring states to take advantage of Wisconsin’s thriving economy and quality of life. After all, the best solution or an acute shortage of working-age people is to attract more working-age people.
Just as important is to encourage people now on the sidelines to get into the workforce. Whether it is increasing training for individuals coming out of the criminal justice system or discovering new ways for Wisconsinites with physical and developmental disabilities to contribute to our economy, we cannot leave anyone behind.
We also are concerned about the decriminalization of recreational marijuana, which Gov. Evers put in his budget proposal. Given that Wisconsin Safety Council is a division of WMC, our concerns are largely over workplace safety and legal liability. But we also wonder what impact decriminalized marijuana will have on the labor participation rate when many businesses report too many job applicants already can’t pass or don’t bother to show up for a drug test, if it is required.
All of the above are state level reforms. At the federal level, we urge President Trump and Congress to find common ground on immigration reform to help provide low, middle and highly skilled workers where they are needed.
With a severe worker shortage, we have no room for error. We need every student to graduate high school with the best preparation possible to be a successful worker, university student or technical college student. That begins with exposing kids to the careers available in our economy, and giving them the skills to be successful at them. Gov. Evers and lawmakers should include funding for the priorities mentioned above to help make that goal a reality.
Kurt Bauer is president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Madison. His commentaries run regularly in the Wisconsin Business Voice, a WMC publication