Key industries event highlights workforce concerns

Panelists represent manufacturing, construction, cybersecurity and staffing sectors

A look through the window of Sargento’s production plant in Plymouth. Due to food safety regulations, only Sargento employees are allowed inside. Credit: Maredithe Meyer

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:57 am

Workforce issues remain among the greatest concerns for many of the state’s industries.

Leaders in the manufacturing, cybersecurity, construction and the staffing industry discussed their challenges at “Key Industries for Wisconsin in 2018 and Beyond,” hosted by the Waukesha County Business Alliance on Dec. 15. Mike Flynn, Milwaukee market president of First Business Bank, moderated the discussion.


“Ask any business leader what keeps them up at night, and the talent shortage is sure to make the short list, if not top it,” said panelist Kelly Renz, president and chief executive officer of Novo Group Inc., a Brookfield-based staffing agency. “With 10,000 U.S. citizens turning 65 every day, and with the smallest population of new workers entering the workforce in recent history, companies are hard-pressed to find and retain the best talent.”

Leading a business that helps companies in Wisconsin’s manufacturing, information technology, insurance, private equity and consulting industries find and hire employees, Renz understands the challenges of the current talent gap and believes the solution lies in the hands of those leading the affected organizations.

She suggests a need for “employment deals” – innovative and collaborative workspaces, flexible work schedules and locations, community involvement opportunities, and clear career progression – to meet the evolving needs of those who are entering, or have recently entered, the workforce; namely, the millennial generation.

According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, more than one in three American workers are millennials, making the group the largest generation in the workforce. And as a population that is often stereotyped as lazy or entitled, millennials are changing the way employers attract and retain talent.

“It’s not that millennials don’t want to work, it’s that they want to work with purpose,” Renz said. “They are even willing to take less pay to work for an organization they believe in. Millennials are not a lazy generation by any stretch. However, they do not want to take just any opportunity that comes along. Instead, they carefully evaluate what the employment ‘deal’ is for their interests and goals.”

While some employers work to improve office culture and develop employment deals, others are turning to higher education to fill employment gaps.


This is the case for the cybersecurity industry, a sector that currently has 300,000 open jobs in the U.S. and 1.8 million open jobs globally that will not be filled by 2022, said Dr. Thomas Kaczmarek, director of the Center for Cyber Security Awareness and Cyber Defense at Marquette University, who was also a panelist.

And with the ever-growing threat of national and global cyber hacking, almost all industries are affected by the cybersecurity worker shortage.

“Cybersecurity is everywhere – the financial area, supply chain management, insurance,” Kaczmarek said. “The criminals that are out there are getting very smart, very polished. It’s a dangerous world. If (a cyber hacker) knows you, your family members, where you live, your social security number and who your doctor is, they can they can even start pulling off fraud on the insurance companies.”

Until earlier this year, none of Wisconsin’s colleges or universities was certified to administer cybersecurity education. The University of Wisconsin-Stout and Waukesha County Technical College recently became the first in the state to be designated as National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

“There are mounting efforts in the state to fill the gap. We’re doing what we can,” Kaczmarek said. “There is also national attention to cybersecurity education. Steps are being taken, but the shortage is there.”

Wisconsin’s construction industry faces the same labor shortage problem. But unlike the cybersecurity industry, efforts in higher education are not the solution. That’s because the true shortage lies within the unskilled trades – jobs that often don’t require more than a high school degree to get hired.


“In our construction business – both land development and homebuilding – you don’t need specific training,” said panelist Matt Neumann, CEO of Neumann Companies, a residential real estate development firm. “You can get on-the-job training and work your way up pretty quickly, but we can’t even find people who will work for $15 to $20 an hour.”

For the manufacturing industry, the problem is only magnified by global competition. Sussex-based custom molding manufacturer Sussex IM Inc. can only pay its assembly line workers $10 to $12 an hour if it wants to compete at a global level, said panelist Keith Everson, president of Sussex IM.

As a result, the company has seen 850 temporary employees cycle in and out of its facility since May. Some only stay as long as an hour, he said.

Increased automation and artificial intelligence are a root cause of the reduced wages for unskilled labor in the industry. Using a robot to load or assemble parts is simply more cost effective and efficient than employing a human to do the same job, Everson said.


“One hundred years ago, 30 percent of the workers in the U.S. were farmers,” he said. “Today less than 2 percent of the workforce are farmers. Manufacturing will see a similar evolution. In Waukesha County, 20 to 25 percent of jobs are manufacturing-related, but those percentages will go down because of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.”

In order to keep up with automated technology, Everson said, the manufacturing workforce in the near future will need to be more adept at mechanics and computer operations.

But for now, Everson is focused on just bringing in more workers.

“If you’re in our business, you have to have no skills at all,” he said. “You just need to speak some English and have some hand dexterity. Plus, you’re working inside in a clean environment where it’s quiet and has heating and air conditioning. Business is increasing but we just don’t have the employees that we want.”

Neumann and Everson agreed that industry leaders need to connect with high school students and encourage them to pursue careers in the construction and manufacturing fields.

“There’s a future (construction) job available to (graduating high school students) today, if they want it and they can run their own business, probably inside of a couple years, if they want to,” Neumann said. “How many other businesses today can you start with very little to no capital and a couple of good friends? There aren’t many and we view that as a huge advantage.”

Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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