Making Wisconsin Irresistible to Business

By
Kurt R. Bauer
WMC President/CEO

Bauer_Kurt-Seated

Wisconsin’s working-age population will grow by just 0.4 percent by 2030, according to the UW-Madison Applied Population Lab. During the same period, Wisconsin’s 65 and over population will grow 94.7 percent.

Those two numbers beg the question: How can Wisconsin attract the workers and taxpayers the state’s economy will need in the future? It’s a tough question to answer because there is no one magic solution as Japan and many European nations facing the same population challenges can attest.

Japan is attempting to change the cultural tradition that pressures women not to work after marriage. Germany is encouraging workers to delay their retirement. The Danes have a cheeky campaign to encourage higher birthrates called “Do It for Denmark.” Many European nations, including Germany and Italy, have embraced liberal immigration policies in order to attract workers.

The latter two solutions have the same common denominator.

Couples generally decide to start or expand a family when they have the financial wherewithal to do so. That means having a good paying and stable job.

Similarly, people move to places where there is economic opportunity. That is why so many Americans (including Wisconsinites) have moved to North Dakota in order to take advantage of the energy boom and the high paying jobs it has created.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin doesn’t have shale deposits so we have to find other ways to attract workers. We’ve done it before. Wisconsin’s original European settlers came from Norway and Germany beginning in the 1840s looking for the upward mobility that was denied them in the “old country.” In the early 1900s, Wisconsin attracted thousands of African Americans to move from the Deep South to Beloit, Milwaukee and Racine to work in factories.

But how do we encourage our youth, especially the best educated and most skilled, to stay in Wisconsin in 2014 and beyond? How do we encourage people to raise their families here? And how do we encourage people to move here from other states and countries, notwithstanding the need for federal immigration reform?

The simple answer is by making the state’s business climate irresistible, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “impossible to resist especially because of strength or attractiveness.”

Business leaders from all sectors need to see that locating or expanding in Wisconsin gives them a competitive advantage other states can’t match. If we accomplish that, people – i.e., workers/taxpayers – will see that Wisconsin is the place to be.

On that score, Wisconsin is already headed in the right direction. Site Selection Magazine recently ranked us the 13th best state for business. Chief Executive Magazine improved Wisconsin to 14th best in the nation, up from 41st in 2010.

Both of those rankings matter because they don’t use the arbitrary metrics often favored by economists and academics. They are surveys of the people who actually decide where to locate or expand a business based on factors like tax rates, regulatory culture, the legal environment and, of course, workforce.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) Board discussed what reforms would make Wisconsin irresistible during its recent strategic planning meeting. Among other things, Board members identified the need to lower the state’s traditionally high income and property taxes, maintaining transportation infrastructure at a time when gas tax proceeds are declining, ensuring K-12 students are better career- and college-ready (both four year and technical), enhancing the national reputation of our metropolitan areas, encouraging entrepreneurship, creating a cooperative and predictable state regulatory culture and protecting the affordability of the state’s energy supply.

Wisconsin isn’t alone in facing unfavorable population trends, which means the race is on to see who can find solutions that work. Making Wisconsin irresistible to business should be one of those solutions. WMC is committed to finding others via our ambitious new initiative, The Future Wisconsin Project, designed to create a statewide 20-year strategic economic plan.

Stay tuned to www.futurewi.org to watch the progress of this important project.

Bauer is president/CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s chamber of commerce and largest business association.

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This article is available in the July edition of WMC’s Wisconsin Business Voice magazine.
Click here to view the full issue.