Remember back when jobs, jobs, jobs was the dominant issue in the race for governor of Wisconsin?
My friend Tom Hefty and I met in 2010 with several Republican big wigs who were planning Scott Walker’s campaign for his first term as governor. They had decided to run on job creation as Walker’s central issue because unemployment was high at 7.9%. The need for jobs affected many households in the state. To win a headline, I suggested that he needed specificity. “How about a pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term?” I asked.
One of the campaign managers asked if that were possible, and Hefty, who has a mind full of statistics, replied that former Gov. Tommy Thompson had created more than that in his first term. It was doable.
Four days later the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel appeared with a top headline in monstrous size type. It was just the number “250,000.”
Walker won the election and a second term in 2014, still using jobs as a central theme.
But, Walker’s sucker punch that he never brought up in the campaign side-tracked the jobs agenda. It was Walker’s infamous Act 10, which passed and took away the bargaining power of most of the public unions in the state. Walker faced a recall over Act 10 in 2015 and survived.
Flash forward to 2022 and job creation is way down the list for the five gubernatorial candidates. Indeed, in the short term, the state doesn’t need more jobs. It needs more workers. The shortage of labor is constraining job growth.
It’s a whole new world. The unemployment rate in Wisconsin has dipped to an all-time low at 2.8%. Employers are using every tactic they can think of to attract good workers.
They have raised wages sharply over the last two years. They have revamped their recruiting practices, often with signing bonuses for the new worker and for the existing workers who recruited the newcomer. They have trained their managers and supervisors to give a lot of TLC to existing workers so they stay with the company despite open jobs everywhere.
The labor shortage is so extreme that some businesses have closed down or reduced services. That’s especially true in the hospitality business. Restaurants are particularly hard hit.
There are still thousands of people of employment age who have opted out of the workforce. Many could be brought back into the workplace with the right training and inducements. Public and private universities and the state’s technical colleges are facing enrollment declines, so they are getting creative about offering work-connected courses, shorter degree programs and skill certifications to jump people back into productive employment.
The labor shortage is so severe that it has given job candidates tremendous leverage. Some of them use it callously; they accept a new job and never show up for work or bail out after a couple days.
None of the five governor candidates facing the primary on August 9 have offered sufficient plans and enough resources to accelerate job readiness.
That’s less than strategic because the state is sitting on a surplus of more than $4 billion, even after a middle class tax cut of $2.4 billion. The economy is roaring back to life and it is throwing off unexpected tax revenues. That surplus could go even higher if more people were brought back to the workforce.
Ideas like free tuition have been floated for community colleges to jump start retraining. It worked for the GI Bill after WWII when millions of veterans used it to educate themselves for the work world.
The free tuition could be tied to a period of public service in critical sectors as partial payback. Public policy could be voiced by the governor candidates to stimulate workforce development along with a responsibility to serve in under-manned sectors like nursing, teaching and childcare.
Youth and adult apprenticeships could be revved up. We know they work.
Back in 2010, big thinking worked for Gov. Walker, even though he only hit about half of the 250,000 job goal in his first term.
The job creation initiative broadly put into place a decade ago helped to create the robust economy we are enjoying today.
We can never forget about job creation because the economy is mercurial. The best bet for job creation over the last 20 years has been the Wisconsin’s strategic initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurship and startup companies. They are the job creators.
The biggest issue of the current campaign is not “rigged” elections. It is bold policy to pull more people into the workforce through job readiness.