For the City Times
By State Senator Julie Lassa
In 1881, when the Wisconsin Legislature approved the state’s coat of arms, it directed that the shield should include an arm wielding a hammer – the symbol of manufacturing. From that day to this, Wisconsin has been a manufacturing leader on both the national and the world stage. October is Manufacturing Month in Wisconsin, a good time to reflect on where our manufacturing sector is today and where it’s heading in the future.
Manufacturing contributes more than $57 billion to our state’s economy – nearly 20 percent of Wisconsin’s gross domestic product. More than 470,000 workers are employed by 9,500 manufacturing businesses throughout the state. Wisconsin is second in the nation in the percentage of our overall workforce employed in manufacturing, more than 16 percent. Just as it has throughout our history, Wisconsin’s economic wellbeing will continue to depend greatly on the strength of its manufacturing sector.
Our image of manufacturing is often rooted in its heyday after World War II – the huge factories with their smokestacks belching smoke. But today’s manufacturing businesses are far different from the dark, dirty and often dangerous image we may have of them. To begin with, most manufacturers are small businesses employing fewer than 500 workers. And today’s manufacturing facilities are more likely to use robots and other automated equipment than the presses and arc welders of old. In fact, Wisconsin’s companies are on the forefront of applying state-of-the-art technology to advanced manufacturing systems.
Because manufacturing relies so heavily on advanced technology, the skills required by manufacturing workers have changed as well. Good math and computer skills and problem solving ability are often essential, as is training on specific manufacturing systems. As I’ve met with manufacturers throughout the state, they tell me that access to the skilled employees they need is one of the greatest challenges preventing them from being able to grow and expand in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, this workforce crunch is likely to accelerate in the near future. As Wisconsin’s workforce continues to get older, more and more Baby Boomers are retiring and leaving the workplace, and because of slowing population growth, fewer new workers are entering it. Experts predict that by about 2035, Wisconsin’s workforce will begin to shrink. This will put severe limits on the ability of manufacturers and all kind of businesses to locate and expand here, which in turn will cause our entire economy to slow down.
If we want to make sure Wisconsin has the skilled workforce we will need for manufacturers to thrive, we have to have the kind of policy that builds our training infrastructure and helps people get the skills they need. The campuses of the Wisconsin Technical College System are on the front lines of training workers in advanced manufacturing techniques. To help them respond to the growing demand for these skills, I introduced the Workforce Growth Act, which promotes increased investment in existing worker training and expands technical college training services to help businesses and industry meet their training needs. In addition, the bill would grow Wisconsin’s workforce by increasing our support of dual-enrollment programs and enhancing services that help returning military veterans train for new careers.
The business leaders I’ve talked with say that access to skilled workers is one of the principal factors they look at when deciding where to locate or grow a business. If we want to ensure that Wisconsin’s manufacturing future is as great as its past, we need to make the investments we need to have a strong workforce.