Wisconsin had the nation’s 18th worst private sector job loss from November 2019 to November 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The largest swing occurred from March to April when the state lost 396,000 jobs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wisconsin’s recreation and restaurant industries were the hardest hit. Employment in the state’s arts, entertainment and recreation industry was still down 34% from the previous year in November and accommodation and food service was down nearly 25%.
Even manufacturing, which was a major contributor to the recovery of the state's economy over the summer, is still down more than 3%, or 16,000 jobs, over the previous year as of November.
The retail trade sector, which includes everything from department and grocery stores to car dealers and jewelers, was down nearly 4%, or 11,400 jobs. Meanwhile, construction represented a bright spot in the state’s economy with 3,000 additional jobs, or a slight increase of 2.4%, as of November.
The state’s unemployment rate spiked to 13.6% in April and came down to 5% in November, which was still higher than the 3.5% rate from November 2019.
With the pandemic’s multi-faceted impact on Wisconsin’s workforce, businesses are now examining how employees spend their time.
If Wisconsin is to regenerate its workforce, business leaders must present their employees with more opportunity not only in terms of flexible schedules, but also by giving them a chance to become more productive team members, said Todd McLees, principal at Milwaukee-based management consulting firm Pendio Group and one of Converge MKE’s founders.
“There’s this need for an engine to be built where there’s constant and continuous learning going on to build new capabilities and organizations,” McLees said. “This is what the ‘big five’ have figured out: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft.”
However, developing digital skills alone will not be enough; the region must shift its mindset in a way that prepares the workforce for more frequent disruption, McLees said. AT&T, for example, provides employees with $6,000 for online courses to invest in their growth each year, he noted.
“If they don’t invest that time and money, it reflects negatively in their performance review,” McLees said. “There’s this new spirit of if we’re not learning as an organization, we’re in competitive trouble.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dichotomy as it relates to time: Recent events seem more distant than usual while trends expected to come to fruition in the future are already here.
When workers learned new skills in the ‘90s, those skills had a lifespan of about 20 years, McLees said; whereas skills learned today last about 3 years before innovation and advances in technology demand that workers be retrained.
To understand just how fast the world changed in 2020, look no further than work-from-home, virtual learning and the growth in e-commerce, which soared nearly 37% in the third quarter of 2020 from the third quarter of 2019.
“There are some really incredible things that have happened in the last 10 months and I think there’s a need to understand that the world is fundamentally and irrevocably different and that we need to behave differently in order to thrive in that new environment,” McLees said.
Part of that change in behavior involves turning transactional work into engaging work by providing employees with flexible scheduling, said Ryan Festerling, president of Brookfield-based staffing and recruiting firm QPS Employment Group.
Over the past several months, employees have watched how their employer handled the pandemic, particularly how they responded to COVID-19-related needs. Festerling, a featured speaker at BizTimes Media’s Economic Trends 2021 event on Jan. 28, said companies that show empathy, are willing to be flexible and have conversations with their employees to discover what it would take to make them more reliable – such as changing childcare arrangements or work shift hours – are seeing reductions in turnover.
“If we can create a major empathic workforce, meaning from manager down to worker, I think we’re all going to be a lot better off for it,” Festerling said. “The good companies are going to keep doing that.”
Harvard economist Peter Blair shared a similar perspective in a recent interview with Inc. magazine. Blair talks of growing fears that a K-shaped recovery might take place, “one in which workers in high-wage jobs return to post-COVID growth in wages and employment while workers earning low wages experience declining economic prospects.”
As businesses look to manage their talent, Blair suspects the best businesses will hire based on a worker’s skill rather than academic credentials, which he attributes to the rising cost of college and the worsening economic conditions brought on by the pandemic.
“Business leaders play a direct role in determining whether a post-COVID economy is a more equitable economy or one with even starker inequality, particularly along racial lines,” Blair told Inc.
Even as 2020 has served as an accelerant in many ways, COVID-19 also threatens to erase progress made over the past six years, particularly related to the representation of women in the workforce, experts say.
Between 2015 and 2020, the share of women grew from 23–28% in senior vice president roles and from 17–21% in the C-suite, according to a 2020 McKinsey & Company study, which involved 600 American companies and surveyed a million people based on their workplace experiences.
Challenges presented by the pandemic have led as many as 2 million women to consider taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether. The most vulnerable groups include mothers, senior-level women and black women, according to the study.
This demonstrates a need for companies to double down on their diversity and inclusion efforts, said Jennifer Ketz, co-founder of Lift Up MKE, a professional development and coaching company focused on reskilling and upskilling women in tech.
“In order for us to get back to where we were, there’s going to have to be fundamental changes in hiring practices, expectations and really reaching back out into those communities to bring women back in,” Ketz said. “I think it has to be extremely intentional and making it a focus, not only of women, but also of diversity and inclusion because it’s getting hit harder.”