New employment numbers show Wisconsin surpassed many of its Midwest neighbors in creating new manufacturing jobs over the past year, prompting one Wisconsin business leader to put out the welcome mat to Illinois workers.
Wisconsin added 3,000 manufacturing jobs between March 2016 and March of this year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounted to a 0.6 percent gain in manufacturing employment, the 15th highest gain among the 50 states.
In contrast, Illinois lost 6,500 manufacturing jobs – 1.1 percent of its total manufacturing jobs – during the same time period, placing the state 35th in the nation in terms of percentage change in manufacturing employment. The rankings were calculated by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which provided the data to Watchdog.org.
“Wisconsin needs to market its great career and lifestyle opportunities to people living in other states – especially ones like Illinois where the economic outlook is far from positive,” Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), said in a prepared statement.
Members of the business association believe reforms enacted since 2011, when Republican Scott Walker took over as governor, have transformed a state that had been hostile to business to one that’s now business-friendly, according to Bauer.
“This is the most pro-business governor in Wisconsin’s history,” he told Watchdog.org. “We’ve lowered taxes, reduced regulations and limited the authority of unelected bureaucrats to promulgate rules.”
A recent survey of WMC members illustrated the new-found enthusiasm of employers in the state, Bauer said.
“Ninety percent of Wisconsin businesses believe that Wisconsin is heading in the right direction,” he said.
And because the unemployment rate in the state is now down to 3.4 percent, Bauer said finding an adequate number of qualified workers poses a challenge. In turn, he said he would welcome Illinois residents to relocate to Wisconsin.
Bauer and others also credit the state’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, which cut the corporate tax paid by manufacturers from 7.4 percent to nearly zero, with boosting economic growth in the state. A study released this month by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor concluded that the tax credit added almost 21,000 manufacturing jobs statewide since 2013.
In addition, the state and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) have increased investments into so-called Fab Labs at Wisconsin high schools, according to Lee Swindall, the WEDC’s vice president of sector strategy development. The labs give students hands-on computer training and analytical skills to help prepare them to enter the state’s expanding industries.
“We have a pretty significant basket of economic development aids that go to manufacturing,” Swindall said.
The manufacturing sector in Wisconsin represents a fifth of the state’s domestic product, and overall industrial expansion reached the $2.2 billion mark over the past two years, he said. The sector was hard hit during the recession in 2008 but has been one of the fastest to recover, according to Swindall.
“I expect that trend to accelerate for the next 18 to 24 months,” he said.
The WEDC official emphasized that the entire state is tightly bound to the fate of the manufacturing economy. It constitutes one-fifth to one-fourth of the economic output in at least 68 of the state’s 72 counties, according to Swindall.
“Manufacturing is part of the DNA of this state, along with agriculture,” he said. And according to WEDC figures, the manufacturing industry employs 468,000 people in Wisconsin, with an average annual income of $55,000.
Ethan Schuh, spokesman for the Department of Workforce Development, said in an email to Watchdog.org that grants funding youth apprenticeship programs have also helped to keep the Wisconsin economy humming.
“Wisconsin has invested heavily in apprenticeship programs for both youth and adults,” Schuh said. “In particular, Wisconsin invested $3.2 million in youth apprenticeship grants last year to provide high school juniors and seniors with access to innovative school-to-work solutions that effectively prepare them to enter the workforce.”
That’s in addition to a program initiated by Walker called Wisconsin Fast Forward, which funds worker-training projects and helps to create partnerships among employers, economic development groups and those in the workforce.
Still, the state’s manufacturing sector faces some challenges in the years ahead. Some manufacturers that export their products to other nations are concerned with proposed changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the strong dollar, which tends to dampen exports, Bauer said.
And with an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent, employers can have difficulty finding qualified workers to fill highly skilled positions.
“Our birth rates haven’t been at replacement levels since the late 1990s,” he said, so the state continues to need in-migration.
“Our transformation from an anti- to a pro-business state has been remarkable, but it is still incomplete,” Bauer said, adding that some remnants of the state’s past progressivism still linger.