The biggest cause of Wisconsin’s workforce shortage isn’t the extra $300 a week the federal government is paying unemployed people, though that benefit should end.
Nor is the main culprit our state’s stagnant minimum wage, which needs to increase.
The biggest hurdle — before and after the pandemic — remains the same: Wisconsin is graying fast and doesn’t have enough young people to replace older workers as they retire, much less to fill the new positions that growing businesses create.
Wisconsin’s prime working-age population fell in every county except Dane and Eau Claire from 2007 to 2017, according to an analysis of census data by the Economic Innovation Group. The pandemic was supposed to trigger a boom in babies as more couples stayed home to avoid the virus. Instead, 2020 was a bust. The U.S. birth rate fell to its lowest point in more than a century, the Associated Press reported this month.
Births in Wisconsin have declined for more than a decade. Just over 60,000 babies were born here in 2020, 9% less than in 2016. If not for immigration and Wisconsin residents living longer, our population would be shrinking.
About the only good news is that teen births in Wisconsin have fallen by more than half in a decade. Couples are waiting longer to have fewer babies so they’re more financially secure. In most cases, that’s a healthy decision.
Yet long-term demographic trends pose significant risk for our economy and prosperity.
What to do?
In last week’s State Journal report “Too few workers in many sectors,” Republicans demanded that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers end $300 in extra unemployment benefits that the federal government is offering during the pandemic. Add that enhancement to normal benefits, and a recipient can receive the equivalent of a $16.75-and-hour job for not working, conservatives complained.
They have a point, though the $300 boost is scheduled to end this fall. The governor should phase it out sooner if the economy continues to improve.
Democrats blamed Wisconsin’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage for failing to support entry-level workers. Wisconsin hasn’t raised its minimum wage in more than a decade. Aiming for $10 an hour, similar to the minimum wage in neighboring Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, is justified.
But bigger solutions are needed. Wisconsin must do far more to attract and keep young people here. Expanding fast and reliable internet in rural areas is a must. Loan forgiveness and other incentives for college graduates who stay here make sense.
Wisconsin’s largest industries — agriculture, manufacturing and tourism — need more legal immigration and flexible worker visas from the federal government. So does the start-up economy. Foreign UW graduates with high-demand degrees should be able to stay. Undocumented immigrants brought here as children deserve a stable legal status and path to citizenship for their contributions.
The technology sector, especially in the Madison region, is pulling in young people from across the country and world. We need to keep these innovators here when they start families. Safe communities, strong schools, fun downtowns and affordable housing will help.
Our workforce shortage won’t fade as COVID-19 is defeated. Neither should bold ideas to make Wisconsin more attractive for our children and their peers.