Recession over, but concerns remain
By Ben Rodgers
Make it official: Waupaca County has rebounded from the Great Recession, but some concerns still linger.
“All I can say is that we’ve recovered from the recession. So I don’t know if I can definitely say the county and the region are in the best shape they’ve ever been in,” said David Thiel, executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corporation. “I haven’t seen numbers that would make me say that’s true, but it’s clear that we’ve recovered from the recession.”
John Koskinen, the chief economist for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, released an article this past month titled, “Wisconsin Economy: Best in 15 Years.”
That article shows the May 2017 seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Wisconsin is at 3.1 percent. That is just 0.1 percent from the all time low reached in the summer of 1999.
“This is rare, Koskinen wrote. “A rate of 3.1 percent or lower has been achieved in only 11 of the 497 months from January 1976 to May 2017.”
Waupaca had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent for May 2017, with 721 people looking for work.
Which according to Thiel means the area is near full employment.
“Of course, there are still people who do not have jobs and are not registered in the Department of Workforce Development system,” Thiel said. “There are also people that are underemployed and would like a better paying job.”
This is where Thiel has some concerns, even with the low unemployment numbers.
“We’re back at the same point where we were at in the early 2000s where the issue was the aging population and that we don’t have enough workers to grow the economy,” he said.
One thing that would help grow the economy would be training workers for the skills needed to catch them up with today’s economy, mainly computers and automation.
“When the president of a Waupaca County manufacturing company tells me he could have hired another 100 people this year but cannot find them, that statement reinforces the governor’s pronouncement that we have thousands of unfilled positions in the state,” Thiel said.
Without that training those positions will likely remain unfilled.
“Essentially what I’ve seen is we’ve gotten back to where we were,” he said. “Our manufacturing sector which employs about 25 percent of our workforce is at the employment numbers we are at prior to the recession and they probably would grow but we don’t have enough people to help them do that.”
Along with training another way to fill these jobs would be to align the education system with the skills employers are looking for.
“This has been going on now for the last 10 years, but it’s not a coordinated effort at the state level,” Thiel said. “It’s people doing it locally in their counties and maybe down in their cities where they’re trying to connect these two entities.”
The cause of the shortage of workers can be linked to the aging baby boomer population.
In Waupaca County there are 14,931 people between 50 and 69 years old, according to an Economic Profile System report. The same report shows 11,025 people aged 20 to 39.
That means there are less people available to work jobs in Waupaca County.
“Now we’re back to where we were,” Thiel said. “Boomers are retiring, 10,000 a day (nationally), so this thing is back with a vengeance, and because it is an issue that’s not solvable.”
The recession also led to some boomers staying in the workforce past a typical retirement age.
While employment numbers are where they were, wages are not.
That’s due to a combination of boomers leaving the workforce and the people replacing them not having the same skill set.
Another Economic Profile System report showed the average U.S. wage in 2015 was $58,985, in Wisconsin that wage was $52,714 and in Waupaca County that wage was $41,443.
“There may be a wage gap, but I’m guessing it’s because the employers can do it at this point,” Thiel said. “Everything I read is wages are going to rise. It has taken longer than a lot of economists expected to happen.”
But right now finding people to fill the jobs that are available is mainly a demographic issue.
“We’re not replacing ourselves,” Thiel said. “Every married couple is having 1.89 children, that really is the problem. It’s the demographics problem of not enough people.”