Thousands of students at public and private colleges and universities in Wisconsin have just received their diplomas, and they are now plotting their first career move.
Will they stay in Wisconsin or will they take jobs in other states?
Today’s young professionals make quality of life a top priority in choosing where they want to live and start their career.
The quality of a city’s nightlife and other entertainment options often determines where many young professionals choose to live.
Attractive, vibrant places to live are gaining young minds, and stagnant places are losing them.
"(Today’s graduates) are making choices on where they want to live, and then they find a job," said Dean Amhaus, president of the Spirit of Milwaukee. "All too often, the individuals talking about brain drain and brain gain don’t understand what’s in the head of a 21-year-old today. It’s not all about taxes. For a 21-year-old, (taxes are) probably not even on their radar screen because they don’t own property."
Those talented young workers are the business leaders of tomorrow and will fill the workforce void soon to be created as baby boomers retire.
"The largest demographic is retiring and is being replaced by the smallest demographic," said Shelley Jurewicz, executive director of Young Professionals of Milwaukee.
"At the very least, we’ll see (a labor shortage) two to three years from now," said Terry Ludeman, chief of the office of economic advisors for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Therefore, the economic futures of states and metro areas depend largely on their abilities to attract highly skilled young professionals who today are looking for someplace cool to live.
For that reason, many cities have formed young professionals organizations to attract and retain skilled young workers and provide them with networking opportunities.
Young Professionals of Milwaukee, formed in 2001, has grown to 3,000 members. The organization helped start young professional organizations in Green Bay, Appleton, Madison and Racine.
Wisconsin is one of several states trying to reverse a brain drain, which means more skilled young people move out of the state each year than move in. The annual net loss of young minds saps the ability of the state’s economy to grow, state leaders say.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau the state had a net loss of 11,224 single, young, college-educated people from 1995 to 2000.
Many single young professionals move to what they believe are exciting cities with prosperous economies and fun social scenes. Milwaukee, by far the biggest city in Wisconsin with just under 600,000 residents, did better than most areas of the state with a slight brain gain of 579 during the late 1990s, according to the Census Bureau.
However, Milwaukee still ranks behind many other U.S. cities, such as Chicago and the Twin Cities, in attracting young professionals. Milwaukee, in the minds of some young professionals, is still stuck with an image of a blue-collar town that is not growing.
Job growth in the metro Milwaukee area is slower than in other parts of the state, Ludeman said. Madison, the Fox Valley and portions of northwestern Wisconsin near the Twin Cities are seeing faster job growth than Milwaukee, he said.
The reason, Ludeman said, is Milwaukee’s traditional reliance on manufacturing. Virtually every other industry in the state is experiencing job growth, except for manufacturing, he said.
Jobs in technology, business management, health care, wholesale trade and construction are all on the rise in the state, he said.
"The Milwaukee County job market has been sluggish for three to four years," Ludeman said. "The job market in Milwaukee is growing more in the suburban areas than in Milwaukee County. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jobs in Milwaukee. It’s still an important part of the state’s economy."
In fact, metro Milwaukee still has far more job opportunities than any other area of the state. The Milwaukee area had a monthly average of 831,000 jobs available in 2003, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Combined, Appleton, Green Bay and Madison had fewer jobs in 2003 than the Milwaukee area. The Appleton area had 203,500 jobs, Green Bay had 147,800 jobs and Madison had 297,300 jobs.
Today’s college graduates are more than qualified to fill many of those jobs, said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
"Whatever a business might need, I think you will find them among our grads," Wegenke said. "We have a really high-quality graduate. Our test scores are high, and our job placement rates are high."
Private school students receive a well-rounded education that makes them an asset to small businesses in need of employees to perform a variety of duties, Wegenke said.
"Small businesses need people to be able to do everything," he said.
Over 11,000 students are receiving degrees this spring at Wisconsin technical colleges.
"Technical college graduates have never been more valuable to employers in Wisconsin," said Kyle Schwarm, marketing director of the Wisconsin Technical College system. "Twenty of the 30 fastest growing occupations over the next decade will require a technical college education. Our graduates have hands on experience with ready to work knowledge that employers require."
About 29,000 students are graduating this spring from the University of Wisconsin System.
"These well-educated graduates are central to efforts to grow the state’s economy," U.W. System president Katharine C. Lyall said. "The UW System is a perfect partner as Wisconsin works to develop a high-end economy by investing in its citizens and attracting new businesses."
UW System survey data indicates more than 80 percent of Wisconsin residents who earn UW degrees remain in the state after graduation.
Wegenke said about 70 percent of students from Wisconsin’s private schools remain in the state after graduation.
However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s brain drain statistics indicate Wisconsin is attracting few young professionals from out of state to move here.
Only about 20 percent of UW System students from out of state remain in Wisconsin after they graduate.
Businesses in the state must be more aggressive if they want to hire the best and brightest of Wisconsin’s college graduates. Some businesses from outside the state begin recruiting top students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering when they are only sophomores, Wegenke said.
"When you want really good employees, you have to be aggressive," he said. "For whatever reason, we have a culture (in Wisconsin) that’s sort of complacent. We assume people will stay here."
If the state hopes to retain talented young people, wages must increase, Wegenke said. The state’s average wage trails wages paid in many nearby states, including Minnesota and Illinois.
"Money talks," Wegenke said.
The state also must overcome its aversion to risk, which permeates the business community. The state ranks low in venture capital investment and in start-up businesses.
"If you’re a young entrepreneur, you want to go to a place that opens its arms to new ideas," Amhaus said.
Milwaukee leaders say their community is the key to reversing the state’s brain drain, because young professionals are drawn to big cities. Milwaukee must continue to evolve into an inclusive and hip city, or young professionals will continue to leave the city and the state, they said.
Milwaukee should take advantage of its 2001 ranking in Girlfriends magazine as the best place for lesbians to live and work to eliminate the racial segregation that has plagued the city, Jurewicz said.
"Young talent is looking for a city that can demonstrate it’s very diverse and very inclusive," she said. "Anything we can do to demonstrate we are a friendly place for women and minorities and people of a different lifestyle is a huge selling point."
Wisconsin and Milwaukee must try to attract talented young minds from not only other states, but also from other countries if the region is to thrive in a global economy, Amhaus said.
"Is Milwaukee ready to welcome people who look different than us, speak differently and have a different religion?" he said. "We absolutely have to have all of that."
Milwaukee also should work to expand its shopping opportunities, improve city schools and add modern mass transportation systems for getting around the region and traveling to Chicago, city boosters said. Such amenities appeal to young professionals, they said.
In addition, affordable housing is needed in Milwaukee’s downtown area, where young professionals want to live, Jurewicz said.
"We don’t’ want the city to be full of empty nesters (living in expensive condos)," she said.
Ludeman said Milwaukee’s economy struggles because, unlike Madison and major cities such as Boston and San Francisco, it lacks a large research institution. Ludeman said he made a recommendation to the U.W. Board of Regents about five or six months ago that they build up the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee into a major research institution to boost the region’s economy.
Amhaus said residents must try to improve the image of Milwaukee and create positive word-of-mouth buzz by bragging about the city’s assets.
"I hear all the time about people who come here and are surprised about what we have," Amhaus said. "We can’t be the best kept secret anymore."
June 11, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI