Wisconsin must invest in its people to move forward

    There was less to celebrate on Labor Day 2008 for the working people of the state. The cost of the usual Labor Day barbeque – the food (and gas to get it) – is going up, while wages are not. And that’s for the folks who have a job.

    Wisconsin has lost 24,000 jobs since last summer. Manufacturing jobs – some of the highest paying – have taken the biggest hit. We’re in the first sustained period of decline in our median wage since the early 1980s.

    These data come from the newly-released State of Working Wisconsin 2008 (find it at www.cows.org) compiled and published biennially by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a policy institute housed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The collective impression that the data leave is negative. And, bad as the news is now, it will probably get worse in the coming months. We are likely slipping into a new recession before we fully recovered from the last one.

    For some groups in our state, the situation is especially grim. The racial gap in Wisconsin is appalling and persistent. Milwaukee posts the highest black/white poverty gap of the nation’s top 100 metro areas. White students in Wisconsin are nearly twice as likely to graduate from high school as blacks, producing the nation’s fourth highest racial graduation disparity. Dropouts earn $4 less an hour than high school grads, and without workforce skills, are often caught in a lifetime of poverty wage jobs. These are real challenges that confront us in Wisconsin, and in the nation.

    So what’s the good news? There is some. First, Wisconsin’s Technical College System is doing a good job connecting graduates to decent jobs. An occupational/vocational degree offers a real reward: a median wage of more than $18 per hour. Wisconsin needs to continue to focus that system as a way to prepare and connect "qualified workers for quality jobs."

    Second, Wisconsinites have a strong work ethic; especially Wisconsin women who are among the workingest women in the country.

    Third, we have key assets and infrastructure – from schools to the UW system, to roads and internet access – that will be critical to our success in the future. But these assets and infrastructure require investment and support to continue to move Wisconsin forward.

    Over the last 30 years, economic growth has evolved into a spectator sport. The average household sees the growth, but doesn’t take the reward home. This year, given gas and food price increases and job losses, too many families are feeling insecure as they head out to the grills.

    Laura Dresser is the associate director for the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) in Madison. COWS is a national policy center and field laboratory for high-road economic development – a competitive market economy of shared prosperity, environmental sustainability and capable democratic government. COWS is a 501(c)(3), nonpartisan, educational and charitable organization. Its budget comes from foundation and individual gifts and grants and technical assistance contracts. For additional information, visit www.cows.org.

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