Milwaukee Biz Blog: Wisconsin should target Illinois workers

Kurt Bauer

For the record, I do not hate Illinois. My dad is from Chicago and I grew up in Beloit, which is so close to the Illinois border that its sister city, South Beloit, is in the Land of Lincoln.

I don’t even hate the Bears. Why would I? The Packers nearly always beat them.

And I must confess to cheering for the Cubs in last year’s World Series. In fact, my first baseball cap was blue with a red “C” on the front of it, and my first Major League Baseball game was at Wrigley Field (I was six and I got lost).

My point is that I do not have anything personally against our neighbors to the south. But I do see the Land of Lincoln as a land of opportunity for Wisconsin, if we are willing to take advantage of Illinois’ considerable woes.

For those who may not know, here is a summary of how bad things have become below the Cheese Curtain.

  • Last year, 762 people were murdered in Chicago, a 58 percent increase from 2015.
  • Illinois has a $7 billion budget deficit and its Republican governor and Democrat-led legislature passed a comprehensive budget in 21 months.
  • Illinois has $129.8 billion in unfunded state pension liability.
  • Its bond rating is the lowest of the 50 states and near junk status.
  • The state government owes vendors $10.8 billion.
  • Politicians at all levels of government are proposing fee and tax increases. At the state level alone, lawmakers are considering a corporate rate hike and adding currently exempted services to the sales tax.
  • Chicago and Cook County have enacted minimum wage and paid sick time laws, which along with tax increases, drive up the cost of doing business there.
  • At 5.4 percent, Illinois’ unemployment rate is the highest in the Midwest (Wisconsin’s rate is 3.7 percent; the U.S. rate is 4.7 percent).
  • A Gallup poll, conducted in March, found that 75 percent of the people living in Illinois have no confidence in state government.

Not surprising, many businesses are leaving Illinois and so are its citizens. Illinois lost more population than any other state between 2013 and 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last October, a scientific poll conducted by Southern Illinois University found that 47 percent of Illinoisans would like to leave the state.

Therein lies the opportunity for Wisconsin.

Our state has a labor shortage. Baby boomers dominate the workforce, but they are either at or fast approaching retirement age. Our birth rates are below replacement levels and since 2008, more people have left Wisconsin than have moved in.

Through the Future Wisconsin Project, the WMC Foundation has worked with stakeholders like the K-12s, technical colleges, four-year public and private colleges, young professional groups, local chambers and multiple state government agencies on efforts to retain as many born and raised Wisconsinites by exposing them to the great career options our state’s economy has to offer.

But even if you put a wall around the state to keep everyone here from leaving, Wisconsin would still have a workforce problem. The bottom line is that we need people to move to Wisconsin.

Immigration is a federal issue and largely out of our control. Within our control is the ability to market Wisconsin’s career choices, quality of life, low cost of living, great communities, high performing schools and diverse recreational activities, and the primary target should be the people of Illinois. After all, many of them are already leaving. Why not have them come to Wisconsin?

But it won’t happen on its own. Wisconsin cannot afford to remain the best kept secret in the Midwest. That is why WMC commissioned a video called, “Wisconsin: A Great Place to Get Started,” to highlight the state as an ideal location for startup companies and for coveted Millennial talent (go to to watch the video, which premiered at last December’s Future Wisconsin Summit to rave reviews). But state funding for a wider campaign is needed to get the job done.

Wisconsin already does an amazing job of selling our state as a great place for a family vacation. But now we need to send the message that if you like visiting Wisconsin, you will love pursing the American Dream here.

Kurt Bauer is president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

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Kurt Bauer is the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

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