Wisconsin grows in fields and factories

In the 1990s, countless news stories were written about the need to transform Wisconsin’s economy because it was too reliant upon manufacturing and agriculture.

I know, because I wrote many of them, citing the insights of economists, politicians, economic development experts and pundits. The prevailing wisdom was that Wisconsin needed to morph toward an economy that was more based on the technology and service sectors.

The future looked bleak for Wisconsin manufacturers unless they outsourced their production to China or Mexico.

Well, it’s time to recalibrate that narrative, because it no longer applies.

It turns out that in the 21st century, Wisconsin’s reliance on manufacturing and agriculture are strengths and strategic assets, not weaknesses or inherent obstacles.

That’s true, even though July was a rough month for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his crusade to create 250,000 new jobs. The state lost 8,200 jobs in July, according to the latest report by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The private sector cut 12,500 jobs, only partially offset by a gain of 4,300 public sector jobs.

Within those numbers, however, are some bright spots. The manufacturing sector has posted a net growth of 15,000 jobs in Wisconsin thus far this year.

As Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, is fond of saying, manufacturers add true wealth to the region because they create value that is sold and exported elsewhere. “The rest of us are washing each other’s socks,” Sheehy says.

The state’s manufacturing sector no doubt sustained some dark days in the past decade, and it culminated with the Great Recession, when one in every four of its manufacturing jobs were eliminated.

However, the manufacturers who found ways to keep the lights on through those dark days are leaner, meaner and greener today. They have adapted to survive in a global economy. Wisconsin is still home to 11,679 manufacturers employing 572,999 workers, according to the latest numbers by Manufacturers’ News Inc. of Evanston, Ill.

Several Wisconsin manufacturing executives I have spoken to in recent months say they are hiring every capable person they can find. In contrast to most other sectors of the economy, Wisconsin has a shortage of skilled welders, machinists and assembly workers.

As the cover story of the Aug. 19 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee magazine reported, Wisconsin also has an economic “ag-vantage” because of its reliance upon farming. The agriculture industry is recovering nicely, buoyed by higher commodity prices, a weak U.S. dollar, increased exports, more efficient farming techniques and a growing consumer movement toward fresh foods.

Wisconsin restaurants are increasingly presenting “field-to-fork” dishes fresh from local farms.

Wisconsin’s agriculture exports surged 36 percent to a record $2.4 billion in 2010 and show no signs of slowing down in 2011.

“The last two years will be the best two years for farm income we’ve seen in the last 45 years,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told BizTimes recently. “You’re seeing very strong prices now, which means farms are doing well.”

The state’s strong ag sector spills additional wealth into its manufacturing, real estate and financial sectors, as well.

So, say it loud and say it proud: Wisconsin is growing with its factories and its fields. That statement could be said 100 years ago, and it remains equally true in the 21st century. Who knew?

 

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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