Wisconsin’s Labor Shortage Turns Five




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The numbers are sometimes staggering, sometimes encouraging, and other times they can be a little confusing. But it seems that all of this data has led to the ringing of the alarm bell regarding the labor shortage impacting Wisconsin business.

The Wisconsin economy is strong and unemployment is at near-record lows. That is great news! “Wisconsin has 150,000 fewer people between the ages of 25 and 54 than it did in 2007.” That is bad news.

For every good number, there seems to be a bad number.

If manufacturing companies cannot scale to meet increasing demand because of demographic changes and the resultant labor shortage, which seems to be happening with some frequency, that stagnancy can trickle down to other parts of the economy (bad news). PBS’s Newshour came to Wisconsin in 2018 to learn more about this issue, which helped raise awareness beyond the manufacturing community. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce recently tweeted that 75% of employers are having difficulty finding workers, a trend that goes back to 2015, as reported by Margaret Naczek in the Milwaukee Business Journal.

If you would like to wallow in bad-news data, take a look at the Key Findings (page 3) in this report by the Economic Innovation Group. The EIG, a bi-partisan think tank, has proposed “place-based visas—let’s call them Heartland Visas— [that] could become a powerful economic development tool for communities facing the consequences of demographic stagnation, but not content to simply manage decline.” Senator Ron Johnson suggested a similar visa program back in 2017 , which did not come to fruition. A similar bill, inspired in part by a successful Canadian program, was introduced by Rep. John Curtis (R‑UT) in December 2019.

Some argue that bringing in new workers will not solve the problem, and may even exacerbate it by lowering wages. There has also been some push-back from social welfare groups who argue that such workers, because they have limited rights, are often treated unfairly. Time will tell if this law passes and provides a solution.

An employer looks out the window, contemplating the future

Bright spots do appear here and there. In Sheboygan, the areas largest employers have spearheaded programs such as “Inspire Sheboygan County” and “Red Raider Manufacturing” which aim to guide students to skilled manufacturing positions that pay well and have great benefits.  And as tech becomes a bigger player outside the urban hubs of Madison and Milwaukee, programs such as “College Here and Now” can help kids graduate high school with a greater skill set than a lot of college graduates. And how about Titletown Tech? This is a big-money joint venture between Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers formed to spearhead innovation in the areas of Digital Health, Advanced Manufacturing, Supply Chain, and Ag/Water/Environment in Northeastern Wisconsin. This is good news. Innovation and closing the skills gap are going to be extremely important moving forward.

If manufacturing companies cannot scale to meet increasing demand because of demographic changes and the resultant labor shortage, which seems to be happening with some frequency, that stagnancy can trickle down to other parts of the economy.

The 2020 Census gets underway soon, and it will provide a lot of new numbers. Before that information is made available, this number sticks out: Wisconsin’s Hispanic population nearly doubled in size from 2000 to 2015, with an increase of 95 percent. That trend is expected to continue, and goes against the tendency of the general population.

The Geo Group pivoted to focus on translations in the mid-90s when NAFTA expanded export options for companies hoping to reach customers in Latin America and Canada. And while we still find ourselves translating massive amounts of text and video aimed at those markets, there is also a new trend where we are translating for manufacturing companies who want to speak clearly and safely to their Spanish-speaking employees here in the Midwest, through safety manuals and instructional videos. Attracting and keeping talent by speaking their language has been an effective strategy for some.

Rebecca Sonnentag, Vice President—Promotions Communications, for County Materials, had this to say on the subject:

 “Our company and industry has experienced growth in the Hispanic workforce, which presented a new challenge but also motivated us to adopt a bilingual approach in our communications. We utilize Spanish translations in all our printed and electronic communications because it’s critical that we reach all our customers and our team members effectively, including Spanish-speaking employees and their family members. Providing benefit information, job training and company news in Spanish can lead to benefits in safety, a more inclusive culture and improved morale, and the bottom line. It’s worthwhile investing in a cost-effective Spanish translation initiative.”

If you would like to learn about the services The Geo Group offers and how we can help you reach a growing demographic in the Midwest, leave us a message at the bottom right of this page where you see this graphic:this graphic represents an invitation to send us a message.

Meanwhile, we will be waiting for those numbers to come in from the 2020 Census.

—Matty Schindler

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