Boosting innovations is key for Wisconsin’s economic future

Boosting innovations is key for Wisconsin’s economic future

By Polo Rocha,

Wisconsin_welcome_sign_webThe statistics can get pretty grim as Wisconsin looks to its economic future, but advances in innovation and the startup culture could help Wisconsin cope with demographic challenges, experts at a panel say.

The panel, which spoke at the Madison Club yesterday, evaluated ways Wisconsin can attract and retain skilled workers, an issue employers across the state say they’re struggling with.

And a key solution is investing in education to train the entrepreneurs whose companies could be key job creators in both urban and rural areas going forward, said Aaron Olver, the managing director of Madison’s University Research Park and former state Commerce secretary.

Look, for example, at the growth stemming from JAMF Software after UW-Eau Claire alum Zach Halmstad set up his company in the area.

“We can’t predict which home town entrepreneurs might go back to,” Olver said. “But we know if we give them a good education and good training, a great youth growing up on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers and hunting in the woods, they’re going to want to stay here. They’re going to want to do great things all over the state.”

The state is concentrating on solutions such as encouraging partnerships between educators and companies and boosting youth apprenticeship programs.

Ray Allen, the Department of Workforce Development secretary, said that’s become a bigger part of DWD’s focus — developing talent rather than being a “benefit agency” overseeing unemployment programs.

Borrowing a line from UW System President Cross, Allen said many of the jobs that employers will hire for in 2030 don’t exist today. And already, he said, the state has 90,000 open jobs listed on the DWD website.

“We’ve got jobs, so we just have to get those kids skilled up to have the jobs,” Allen said. “I think we’re on the right track on that.”

The state, through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., is also developing a marketing campaign encouraging people to come — and stay — in Wisconsin.

That’s partly because most people think Wisconsin’s jobs are in agriculture, not technology fields, according to a national survey that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce unveiled in December.

A marketing campaign would help, said Competitive Wisconsin consultant Jim Wood, but the state needs broader systemic change and a deeper look at its economic development strategies. Ultimately, the longtime public relations expert said, the state’s marketing won’t work unless it’s “able to deliver” on its promises of opportunity.

Most counties in the state are getting grayer, increasing the demands on taxpayer dollars and reducing the potential property tax base in the future, Wood said.

And the state, he said, has seen flat growth in its workforce in recent years — just as DWD had projected in a 2009 report.

“We need to stop talking in bumper stickers and start focusing on solving problems,” he said.

One issue for retaining and attracting an educated workforce, whether it’s through startups or at legacy manufacturers, centers on developing the communities where millennials want to work.

Maggie Brickerman, who works with college entrepreneurs through gener8tor’s gBETA program, said communities with fun cultures, good schools and outdoor activities are “huge magnets” for millennials.

And some areas, such as Beloit and Eau Claire, are leading the way in that department, she said. That’s mixing with efforts to develop entrepreneurs across the state and the launch of the Badger Fund of Funds that will invest in their startups, she said.

“I’m incredibly optimistic about the potential of Wisconsin to be a home to these high-growth companies,” she said.

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