Milwaukee Biz Blog: The War for Talent

In the previous issue of BizTimes Milwaukee, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of our publication and looked ahead at the key issues of the next 20 years for the Milwaukee area and the region’s business community.

tug of war

I spoke with several prominent area civic and business leaders to discuss the topic. One was Kenneth Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. When I asked Yunker about the challenges facing the region over the next two decades, I honestly expected him to talk about freeway projects.

But instead, he talked about demographics.

As the huge baby boomer generation moves into retirement, the labor supply will tighten considerably, Yunker pointed out. In the past, population growth fueled economic growth as the workforce kept getting bigger and bigger. But the generations following the baby boomers are not large enough to keep the size of the workforce growing when the boomers retire.

“That’s going to make it hard to grow the economy,” Yunker said.

So what does that mean?

“This area will be in an intense competition (with other regions) to attract labor force and grow jobs,” Yunker said.

We all should be worried about this. One of the biggest issues we often hear about from area employers is that they are having a hard time attracting and retaining skilled employees. In the recent Waukesha County Business Survey, a majority of respondents across nearly every sector indicated they had difficulty attracting/retaining employees. Of the 335 businesses responding to the survey, 77 percent said they have a lack of qualified applicants for job openings, and 72 percent identified the need for a skilled workforce as their primary challenge to starting and growing their businesses.

That’s the way things are now. As the boomers retire, this problem is only going to get worse.

What does the Milwaukee area need to do to attract the talent we need to grow our businesses and the economy of this region?

Providing a high quality of life in Southeastern Wisconsin will be a critical factor in attracting talent. We know there is nothing we can do about the harsh Wisconsin winters.

Talented workers can live anywhere and in many cases they choose regions that offer an attractive lifestyle that includes culture, arts, sports and parks. Those are areas in which metro Milwaukee has the opportunity to excel.

A strong economy, safe communities and good schools no doubt are also vital. But everyone needs something to do when the workday is done and talented workers are attracted to regions that offer lifestyle amenities.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce recently hosted its biennial All Member Meeting at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee. The choice of venue was no accident. A major theme throughout the event was the need to invest in the region’s cultural assets in order to compete with other regions for top talent.

“There is a direct tie between how people perceive the quality of (this) place and our ability to attract talent, especially young, mobile talent,” said MMAC president Tim Sheehy.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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