UWM upgrade would boost state’s economy

Commentary

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Wisconsin’s economy is providing an interesting combination of positive and negative news.

The good news is the state’s unemployment rate has dipped to 3.2 percent, the lowest level since early 2000. And, the state posted the strongest economic growth over the past three months of the five states in the Chicago Federal Reserve region.

But the bad news is the state only ranked 33rd for private sector job growth last year, which was the lowest 12-month period for private sector job growth in Wisconsin since mid-2010. The state also continues to rank last among larger states for startup activity, a key source of economic growth.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature have pushed an aggressive pro-business agenda in an attempt to spur economic growth in the state. The results have been mixed.

The state’s low unemployment rate, while obviously a good thing, in and of itself poses a challenge. Businesses in the state are having a hard time finding the people they need to hire so they can grow. It is an issue we hear about from business owners again and again.

Walker has clearly recognized this and has made the state’s workforce one of his latest major points of emphasis.

A lot of the focus so far has been on worker training in an attempt to address the skills gap. No doubt those efforts are very important, but the workforce problem is bigger than that. It’s not just a skills gap. It’s a people gap.

Wisconsin needs more people to fuel its economy, and especially talented people.

Leaders need to find ways to attract people to move to Wisconsin. The weather is an obstacle, of course, and nothing can be done about that. The state has a healthy economy and a good quality of life, but that has not been enough to attract talent.

One of the state’s most important economic assets is its university system. I’ve met several great people, including BizTimes employees, who came here from out of state to go to college, discovered this is a good place to live, and then stayed here after graduation and are now contributing to our economy and our communities.

Unfortunately the UW System has faced criticism for its spending and some Republicans seem to have an axe to grind with the liberals in academia. They need to look past that and focus on how crucial the universities are for the state. They are vital economic engines that attract and develop talent and generate business ideas.

The ideal scenario would be if Walker and members of the Legislature realized the tremendous opportunity they have in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Instead of treating UWM like a local commuter college, they should commit to transforming it into an elite university that attracts and grows top-level talent.

Recently a group of Milwaukee community and business leaders, calling themselves Panther Promoters, announced they are forming a new organization focused on advocating for UWM receiving “the resources necessary” to be a “world-class urban university.”

“Milwaukee goes as our flagship campus goes, and Wisconsin goes as Milwaukee goes,” said Lori Craig, senior vice president at PNC Bank and a founding member of Panther Promoters.

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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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