Rural communities struggle with Wisconsin’s ‘brain drain’
By Matt Pommer
Wisconsin’s workforce is aging and, often, young people seem to be moving away. Employers are struggling to find qualified workers.
Consider a news report about the large Georgia Pacific paper mill in Green Bay. Each year, about 100 workers, or about 5 percent of the workforce, retire.
Unemployment rates in the northeast area around Green Bay are running a half percent below the national average, according to state employment officials.
Job openings appear plentiful, but many of the vacancies call for different abilities than they did 20 years ago. More of the jobs require skills and training beyond high school, according to job experts.
The Milwaukee metropolitan area often hears about the difficulty in recruiting and retaining highly skilled college graduates. The problem is often described as a “brain drain.”
Regional income levels and community crime statistics have been cited as concerns of those being recruited from elsewhere for jobs in Milwaukee.
The worker pinch has also been acute in smaller Wisconsin communities. Duane Ford, retired president of the Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, cited the issue in a speech.
“One of the biggest challenges for rural communities is the out-migration of our children,” he said while questioning whether communities are doing enough to promote themselves.
“How often do we say or imply that the lights are brighter or the grass is greener somewhere else?” he asked, noting that local employers often complain they cannot find enough talented applicants.
“We need to talk early and often to young people about the education, job, entrepreneurial and career opportunities in our hometowns.
“We need to realize that the local retention of young people is not and cannot be the sole responsibility of schools, colleges and universities. Parents, family members, employers and all community members need to be part of the solution,” he said.
“We must stop or at least question explicit or implied judgments about the value of work or where the ‘grass might be greener.’”
It’s OK to praise those who go on and get college educations, he suggested, but let’s also give three cheers for those in blue-collar trades.
Smaller rural school districts have struggled with the combination of declining enrollments and reduced state aid. That might convince young families there are better places to educate their families.
Gov. Scott Walker has been urging families and high schools to have young people consider training for technical jobs that don’t require full four-year liberal arts educations.
A package of bills to help pay for technical and job-related training is expected to reach the governor’s desk this month.
Wisconsin has lagged other states in earnings. Pay is higher in neighboring Minnesota and Illinois. Do these statistics play a role in young people taking jobs in other states?
Wisconsin has balked at increasing its minimum wage – something that tends eventually to boost salaries across the board.
Wisconsin also has weakened the union movement by banning new contracts that require workers to join unions and pay dues.
Employers championed the minimum-wage stand and union changes. Now, their problem is finding workers.