West Bend historically enjoyed an unemployment rate that was better than the Wisconsin average, mainly because it had a diversified business base that was anchored in manufacturing.
That started to change 20 years ago when global competition knocked out several large employers and was compounded by the damage to local manufacturers in the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 and its long hangover from 2010 through today. West Bend’s story was the same across the industrial Midwest.
Those economic blows resulted in the eastern part of West Bend and Trenton being designated as a “low income” census tract as of the 2010 national count. That never happened before.
So, theoretically, we have a lot of people available for hire. But, in the real world, that’s not proving to be the case. Serigraph, which had to cut its workforce in half to survive 2008 and 2009,after decades without major layoffs, is hiring again and we are having a very difficult time funding people who want to work.
One manager described the difficulty of hiring as “excruciating.”
We have hired 56 fulltime employees since last fall, including a dozen engineers, chemists and managers. But we still have 20 openings and 89 temporary workers to fill the gaps. Plus, we are working a lot of overtime to keep up with orders.
Such growth is a nice problem to have after five years in the swamp, but it presents a real challenge if capable workers aren’t available to Serigraph and other companies that are growing again. The entry level pay isn’t real high; but it ranges from $9 for unskilled positions to $13 for semi-skilled, along with a full package of benefits.
Here’s some feedback I received from the people doing the hiring here:
• Unemployed people make an application and then some don’t even call back when they are called for an interview. Go figure.
• When we convert a temporary worker doing a good job to permanent status, some of them stop showing up for work on a consistent basis. What’s that all about?
• The staffing companies are having a hard time finding temporary workers.
• It isn’t a lack of basic skills in reading, writing or math that’s the problem; it’s the work ethic.
Said one supervisor, “If they wanted to work, if they would come to work, they wouldn’t be unemployed.”
There have been two high level state task forces that analyzed at the gap between job openings across the state and available talent. Many agencies and schools are trying to solve that mismatch. Gov. Walker has programs in his new budget to develop better labor market information so people can be guided into the right career paths.
And there is no question that on a strategic level that labor shortages can hold back the growth of local and state economies. That’s especially true if the openings are in key economic clusters that drive the economy, like advanced manufacturing.
His administration has also boosted the prospects for manufacturing by enacting a phased-in removal of the state income tax on manufacturers, starting this year and going away almost completely by 2015. Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend led that charge.
But all those efforts at creating jobs will be blunted if the next generation, for whatever reasons, is not motivated to take and keep a job. Wisconsin used to be famous for its high work ethic.
Is that no longer true?
One way or another, Serigraph will find the permanent people it needs. We are willing to do the training so they can move up to higher pay jobs. But it has to be a two-way effort.