The retainers

Working to keep and attract a vibrant workforce

Adrienne Palm of Fox Cities PULSE

Wisconsin is home to approximately 5.7 million people, with about half – almost 3 million – in the workforce. The state also retains a good chunk of its college graduates; approximately 60 percent those who received a bachelor’s or advanced degree from one of the state’s public or private institutions are Wisconsin residents, according to a 2013 report by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the supply-and-demand challenge remains. Wisconsin ranks low for in-migration and high for the number of baby boomers nearly ready to retire.

Filling the impending employment void presents familiar challenges. According to Department of Workforce Development Bureau of Workforce Information and Technical Support projections, an estimated 46,000 positions will be unfilled by the year 2022. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), UW System, Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and others are working to find ways to keep young professionals living and working in Wisconsin.

YP Week 2016.
YP Week 2016.

“It used to be referred to as a skills gap, but more and more the demographics are shifting to where it is simply a people gap,” said Kelly Lietz, marketing and brand strategy vice president at WEDC. “There just aren’t the people available to do the jobs that businesses are creating, which has led to lots of conversations between WEDC, employers, our economic development partners on the ground and educational institutions across the board.”

Connecting talent to careers

Developing and retaining the state’s future workforce is a primary focus of the UW System’s 2020FWD plan.

“Education doesn’t start when you hit a tech college or university, it starts when you leave the cradle. So the first piece of that strategic plan is the educational pipeline and our partnerships with K-12 and other entities. We want to make sure we are collaborating, so that we are able to get kids thinking about college and career options in grade school and middle school. By the time they get to high school, they have the ability to start to specialize,” explained David Brukardt, associate vice president of economic development for the UW System, with offices at both UW and WEDC. 

Once in high school, college prep classes give students a jumpstart both in terms of career preparation and college affordability.

“By the time students get to a tech college or university, they might have as much as a year or more of their higher ed work finished already,” Brukardt said.

The UW System is the largest component of the Wisconsin higher education pipeline, graduating some 36,000 students annually. Career Connect, part of the 2020 plan, is a new website that connects students to internship and job shadowing opportunities.

“Our estimate is that about half of the students already have an internship or mentorship before they graduate,” said Brukardt. “Our goal is to move that up to 100 percent. Internships greatly enhance hireability and retention.”

WCTS graduated nearly 26,000 students in 2015 from 16 schools.

Adrienne Palm of Fox Cities PULSE  addresses attendees at YP Week 2016.
Adrienne Palm of Fox Cities PULSE addresses attendees at YP Week 2016.

“Ultimately, talent goes or stays where career opportunities exist. For us, strong employer engagement in our programs is our number one strategy for keeping graduates here,” said Morna Foy, WCTS president.

Both systems are part of the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, which has made recommendations that include tax incentives and rebates for graduates who stay in the state.

“Hopefully, that and other recommendations will be under discussion again this biennium,” Brukardt said.

Connecting talent to community

Young professionals organizations are working to make Wisconsin even stickier, with the additional goal of attracting new talent from outside the state.

Adrienne Palm is working toward those goals in the Fox Cities through her work with PULSE, a young professionals network supported by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.

Palm, a young professional herself, never envisioned living and working in Appleton.

“I moved here when I was 20 years old,” she said. “I never saw myself living in a community this size, but eventually I fell in love with it and became incredibly passionate about it.”

“The reality is that YPs are drawn to the cultural amenities a larger city has,” Palm said. “We have an opportunity to create some of those same cultural benefits even in smaller communities.”

That vision takes center stage during YP Week, a statewide, weeklong collaborative initiative that connects YPs with community leaders and peers engaging in meaningful conversation for change.

The event was started in 2012 by Angela Damiani, chief executive officer of NEWaukee, a social architecture firm that helps corporations with talent attraction and retention.

“We were hearing the same things from our clients around the issue of millennial attraction,” said Damiani. “So we developed YP Week, which was really a gateway or a golden key for YPs in the city of Milwaukee to find everything they need: access to leadership, places to work and live, community access.”

Adrienne Palm of Fox Cities PULSE  addresses attendees at YP Week 2016.
Adrienne Palm of Fox Cities PULSE addresses attendees at YP Week 2016.

Participation in Milwaukee’s YP Week grew from 1,000 to 4,000 participants in just three years. In 2015, YP Week expanded. This year, 36 YP organizations across the state will take part in YP Week.

Engaging young people in the community is the key to retention efforts, Damiani said.

“Ensuring the people already there, the millennials in a community who are wholeheartedly choosing that location, have a mechanism to make improvements or to change things that they see as important is super critical.”

Changing perceptions

Young people’s perception of the opportunities in Wisconsin is another challenge.

“We’ve done a great job of marketing our state as a cheese state, but people aren’t thinking about the innovation going on here,” Lietz said. ”Students aren’t naming things like bioscience or manufacturing or financial services – all these things that are truly assets of our state. We’ve got to fix that.”

To change that perception, WEDC rolled out a new brand statement –Think-Make-Happen in Wisconsin – at the Future Wisconsin Economic Summit.

“This shared communication platform is designed to help us better articulate the value that Wisconsin offers from a professional and personal fulfillment standpoint,” Lietz said.

NEWaukee, YP groups, employers, communities and secondary educational institutions are embracing the statement.

“If we all get behind a common message, we can change how people, particularly young people and those looking for career opportunities, perceive the State of Wisconsin,” he said. “Jobs aren’t enough. Young people can go anywhere and find a job. We need to excite young people about the high quality of life, the low cost of living and all of the things that would put Wisconsin into consideration for where they will pursue the next chapter of their life.” 

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