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Wisconsin’s future . . . powered by people

For millennia the economy was largely dependent on what we could extract from the earth, but the agriculture was subject to the vagaries of climate and much else beyond the power of the people who farmed. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution transformed the world-wide economy to one based on what we could make, but manufacturing subjected the individual to standardization and routinization of work. Now, in the era of the “Knowledge Economy,” it is what Richard Florida called the “creative class” in all sectors – including agriculture and manufacturing – who are powering cultural and societal and economic change. Brain workers are the essential “natural resource” and hold the keys to the future.

As has always been the case, there is a world-wide competition for access to critically important “natural resources,” but what does the competition for people look like and how is Wisconsin faring? A Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance Focus report did, indeed, give focus to this issue. To grow its economy, Wisconsin needs talented and educated people. I quote, “As Wisconsin ages and the ‘natural’ population increase – the difference between births and deaths – shrinks, workforce size and job creation are likely to slow. If the state’s population and economy are to grow, in-migration is the only other option. Yet, in the past seven years, Wisconsin’s annual population and income losses have averaged 5,750 and $311 million, respectively [emphasis added].”

While I welcome the best and brightest relocating to Wisconsin, in-migration is not the only strategy. It is a truism in economic development (I previously worked in economic development for five Wisconsin governors) that significant economic growth does not result from “smokestack chasing,” luring businesses to move across the state’s borders. Rather, the proven path to success is to “grow our own;” that is to encourage employers to expand where they are and to encourage entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Even so with the competition for talent. Those of us who live here love this state and would not want to live anywhere else. However, efforts to lure “brain workers” to relocate to Wisconsin without a specific job waiting or by means of slick advertising campaigns are unlikely to be successful. Wisconsin does know how to “grow its own”—by providing educational opportunity here in this state for those who are currently without such opportunity. Study after study shows that college graduates end up living close to their alma mater. Wisconsin employers will expand here if there is a supply of talented brain workers here as well. Those same graduates will also be starting up new enterprises in Wisconsin.

So, if “growing our own” is a workable, winning strategy, how do we get there? We need only look to Minnesota—a state with similar climate, traditions, and population. Wisconsin ranks 28th in the country in the percent of its population with a baccalaureate degree and 26th in per capita income. Minnesota ranks 10th in the country in the percent of its population with a college degree and 11th in per capita income. The alignment—28th and 26th versus 10th and 11th could not be more dramatic. Equally telling is one additional variable: Wisconsin ranks 27th of the 50 states in per capita grant aid provided to in-state students, while Minnesota is in 18th place. WAICU supports Wisconsin Grants targeted to Wisconsin students attending a Wisconsin college or university (UW-System, WTCS, or WAICU).

WAICU-member colleges and universities are doing their part—growing enrollment by 90 percent between 1980 and 2014. Invest in people, and Wisconsin’s future will be powered by people!


Rolf Wegenke, Ph.D.