Gov. Scott Walker proposed last week a nearly $7 million plan to attract workers to the state, drawing praise from conservatives and business groups and charges of gimmickry from one Democratic senator.
Walker unveiled the targeted plan at the fourth annual Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Foundation's Future Wisconsin Summit.
Under the plan, according to lawmakers supporting the proposal, the state would provide up to $6.8 million for workforce attraction initiatives. Specifically, it would provide $3.5 million to attract veterans to Wisconsin, $3 million to market Wisconsin as a destination for millennials in the Midwest, and $300,000 for the Department of Workforce Development to create a mobile job center that would provide job services and talent recruitment in underserved areas and at out-of-state events.
WMC president and CEO Kurt Bauer said the plan was exactly what employers in the state have been asking for.
"Four years ago we launched The Future Wisconsin Project because employers had been telling us they were having trouble finding workers," Bauer said. "Today, more than three-quarters of our members are still struggling to hire for the positions they have available."
It's not just a mismatch between available jobs and willing or adequately skilled workers, Bauer said; it's a need for new bodies.
"Our unemployment rate is at historic lows and our labor force participation rate is one of the highest in the country," he said. "Simply put, we need more people to move into Wisconsin. Our businesses are ready to expand, they just need more bodies."
Bauer said the governor was taking real action to tackle a specific and real workforce challenge.
Two lawmakers, Rep. Mike Rohrkaste (R-Neenah) and Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), said they would help the governor move the plan through the Legislature.
"I fully support Gov. Walker's initiative to attract more workers to the state of Wisconsin," Rohrkaste said. "Sen. Feyen and I have been pushing for investment in talent recruitment, and we look forward to assisting the governor in these efforts. As a former human resources person in the Fox Cities, I know first-hand how hard it can be to attract new talent to Wisconsin."
In fact, Rohrkaste said, it was the greatest challenge his company faced, and the representative said it continues to be for companies across the state.
"Initiatives like this one will be key to attracting more workers to Wisconsin," he said.
Feyen said the administration and the Legislature had done an excellent job of supporting worker training programs but it was not enough.
"Wisconsin needs more people to fill jobs in our growing industries," Feyen said. "Getting out the message that Wisconsin is a vibrant state with plentiful opportunities to expand a career, start a family, and build a life is a key piece in solving our workforce puzzle."
It's a gimmick
But state Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) said the plan was little more than a gimmicky ad campaign that wouldn't work. What is needed, Hansen said, were real incentives.
"Young people are intelligent and savvy as many advertisers will tell you," Hansen said. "Slick ad campaigns will not keep or lure them to Wisconsin if we do not give them a good reason to choose our state as opposed to places that might be more attractive because of their weather, mass transit, or metropolitan areas."
Hansen said one of the best ways to keep and attract young workers would be to pass his Higher Ed/Lower Debt bill that would allow Wisconsin residents to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates.
"Employers could use a state student loan refinancing program as a selling point to prospective applicants, many of whom are struggling under the high cost of their student loans," he said. "Passing HELD would give Wisconsin employers a competitive advantage over their competition in other states. And refinancing could be done at very little to no cost to state taxpayers."
While the governor has repeatedly said the private sector is best able to deal with the crisis, Hansen said, the crisis continues to grow. The lawmaker said Wisconsin is among the top five states for the percentage of college graduates with student debt, with over two-thirds of state graduates holding student loans.
Since 2014, Hansen said, the average student debt for college graduates has grown from $28,800 to more than $30,000.
"Clearly the private sector is incapable or unwilling to solve this crisis," he said. "In the meantime our communities and businesses lose out as more and more graduates consider moving or delay buying a new car, a home, or starting a family."
Student loan debt is also impacting students who attend state technical colleges, Hansen said. He said the average amount borrowed by graduates of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College increased by about $5,300 between 2007 and 2015.
"The student loan crisis is trapping more and more of our state's young people, including many who chose to go to technical college for its affordability," he said. "We need to do something to help them get a good start in life."
And that something was his student loan refinancing bill, the senator said.
"Rather than paying millions to media consultants for a marketing campaign that is unlikely to work, Gov. Walker and Republicans could do something that would actually benefit up to 900,000 Wisconsin residents and provide a real incentive to keep and attract young workers by embracing student loan refinancing and the Higher Ed/Lower Debt bill," he said.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.
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