Leaders offer mix of hope, pessimism about state’s economic future at panel

By Erik Lorenzsonn, The Capital Times

WI_econ_futureA panel discussion on the future of Wisconsin’s economy Tuesday in downtown Madison offered a mishmash of optimism and pessimism about the state’s prospects, circling around topics like the health of the labor force, rural versus urban development, and the role startups and entrepreneurs have to play.

The luncheon panel, organized by the Madison-based media group WisPolitics, comprised a group of speakers working in the realm of economic and business development, including Jim Wood, a counsel to the private economic development consortium Competitive Wisconsin. Wood set the tone for the discussion by providing analysis of the future of the state’s workforce — the health of which he said “has to be Wisconsin’s top economic priority.”

As the state grows increasingly old, and as more young people stay in school longer and delay entering the labor force, Wood said it’s likely that the workforce population will enter a decline, even as estimates show the state’s population growing by about 6 percent over the next 25 years. That trend, he said, is poised to shrink the state’s tax base.

He said that the state needs to “begin using what we have here at the moment” in terms of tools and policies to start solving the problem.

“But even if we did that spectacularly well, we would not have the workforce numerically, or in terms of the skill base, that we have to have in order to stop the erosion of the tax base,” he said.

Others on the panel offered rosier perspectives on the state’s economic prospects. Ray Allen, the state’s Department of Workforce Development secretary, was among them.

He pointed to the the state’s current unemployment rate — recently measured to be 4.2 percent, 1.3 points better than the national average — as well as the labor force participation rate — which clocked in most recently at 68.7 percent, about 5 points better than the national average. Both metrics have long been touted by the Walker administration as indicators of the state’s positive economic health. Read more …

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