It’s a foregone conclusion that Gov. Scott Walker won’t hit his goal of 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin by 2015.
It’s also a fact that Wisconsin’s best interests are served if everyone keeps that ambitious job creation goal firmly in mind.
The rhetoricians who came up with Walker’s 250,000 new jobs figure during the 2010 campaign weren’t entirely out of touch with reality when they came up with the number. Wisconsin had about 2.7 million non-farm workers in the fall of 2010, so adding 250,000 jobs by the end of a standard gubernatorial term didn’t seem impossible. The 250,000 goal represented about 9.2 percent growth spread over four years – or roughly 2.3 percent growth per year.
Aggressive? Yes. Out of line with historic trends? Not completely, given what economists knew at the time.
In fact, Walker’s Democratic opponent in the 2010 general election, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, set a goal of creating 180,000 jobs over his four-year term. That’s about 1.6 percent job growth per year. So it’s not as if Democrats don’t buy the importance of setting vigorous economic goals.
If a recall election takes place sometime in 2012, no Democratic candidate will run on a platform of being timid about job creation. “Let’s settle for less” doesn’t make for a winning bumper sticker, even if it does fit. In politics as in business as in life, people respond to clear, aspirational goals.
So the real questions become how many jobs can Wisconsin realistically create over time – and what are the right strategies for getting there? Here’s what we know:
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 47,000 fewer jobs in Wisconsin in October 2011 than there were in October 2001. That’s a 10-year growth rate of minus 0.2 percent, which compared to 0.0 percent growth in Minnesota, minus 0.5 percent in Illinois, minus 0.1 percent in Iowa and minus 1.4 percent in Michigan. In short, flat job growth has been a regional phenomenon tied largely to the recession that began in late 2008 but also reflective of the manufacturing downturn that began much earlier.
- The Wisconsin Department of Revenue predicted in October, based on its internal modeling, that 136,000 would be added to the state’s private payrolls by 2015. When the final job figures for 2011 are crunched, Wisconsin will show a modest net gain for the year – but the pace must quicken to achieve even the Revenue Department’s prediction.
- Wisconsin may already be faring better than expected on job creation, at least in comparison to what other states are doing. A recent report by Economic Modeling Specialist Inc., a national firm headquartered in Idaho, examined all 50 states from the perspective of “expected” job creation in 2011 to actual performance. “Boom states” – mostly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions – were best at beating expectations. Wisconsin ranked 22nd on the list, adding 10,745 more jobs than a national formula might predict.
Critics can pound Walker all they want for setting a lofty goal, and it was risky for him to suggest state policies alone would be enough to trump national and international mega-trends. It’s not Scott Walker’s fault that parts of the European Union are an economic basket case or that Congress and the White House can’t come to terms on the budget deficit – but it was his mistake not to anticipate how external factors could wash up on Wisconsin’s shores.
So, what’s next? The 250,000 goal can be second-guessed forever, and probably will be in a recall-election environment. But there’s little doubt that Wisconsin needs a stronger economy and strategic job-creation strategies. Democrats and Republicans alike should be able to agree on that. As the Legislature returns this month, there will be several opportunities for both sides to work together on key bills that can help the private sector do what only it can do – create jobs.
Barring an economic miracle, Wisconsin won’t have 250,000 new jobs by 2015. But the goal should remain as a constant reminder that everyone has a stake in creating a more productive, prosperous Wisconsin.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.