Change brings a bright future for Wisconsin's economy

6:19 PM, Oct. 19, 2013  |  Comments
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The country is beginning to understand what we in Wisconsin have known for a long time: True economic value is created only when a product is dug, grown or made.

Other activities in the economy may support value creation, but only mining, agriculture and manufacturing create value. We've always understood these principles, and after unsuccessful adventures to create wealth through service and knowledge economies, the country is returning to these basic value creation truths. Wisconsin is well positioned to take advantage of this sea change.

Manufacturing leads the way in our state, as we have more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other state in the union. Manufacturing creates 19 percent of our GSP, driving almost half of our economy with the support services it requires. A recent study shows that 36 out of the 37 driver industries in Wisconsin are manufacturing related.

All of this leaves us well positioned for the future. We have more than 9,000 manufacturing firms throughout the state - more than 70 percent have fewer than 20 employees, while only 114 have more than 500 workers. This diversification provides a tremendous manufacturing base and makes it possible for combinations of these operations to provide almost any requirement, anywhere on the planet. Wisconsin is still the machine shop to the world.

That world is becoming more complex and that complexity requires two things to fuel its growth: A ready, willing and able workforce, and coordinated economic development efforts.

One fact from IBM can illustrate this accelerating complexity. More than 43 percent of IBM's sales come from products that were impossible to deliver just two years ago. In this environment, economic growth requires the ability to respond to changes quickly and flexibly. In manufacturing, quick, flexible response comes from the best and brightest workforce properly equipped, and coordinated reaction to economic opportunities in the marketplace.

Our workforce is at the center of these requirements. We want our best and brightest engaged in a way that makes them ready to flexibly address the accelerating changes taking place in our world. That may mean a redefinition of our ideas around individual success.

Once that definition demanded a four-year degree. Now that degree is not the guarantee it once was, as two-thirds of our careers require a two-year degree or less and 25 percent of our state's four-year degree holders make $28,000 per year - or less. The changing economy requires frequent skill updates - accomplished through numerous alternative paths - paths that create solid futures without crushing loads of educational debt.

Success should be defined as leading a full, productive life, rather than holding a four-year degree. That broader definition puts Wisconsin in a stronger position. It engages all of our residents, rather than just the 27 percent with four-year degrees. It also opens new alternatives to engage our best and brightest people - strengthening the workforce and making it more flexible. A portfolio of approaches creates more flexibility matching the workforce with economic opportunities.

The difficulty of this portfolio is that it requires more cooperation and coordination than a degree-oriented focus. More alternatives mean more organizations and the potential for wasteful redundancies.

I see that fairly frequently in my travels throughout the state: new university programs that duplicate established offerings at other campuses; workforce development efforts duplicated in multiple regions; and multiple organizations overextending their ability to deliver on their promises. Wisconsin has more than 650 economic development organizations in the state. It's tough to keep them aligned and productive.

Our present situation requires more cooperation and collaboration to propel our economy forward and make the most of limited resources. There must be a broad-based alignment and amplification of efforts throughout the state. Institutional leaders must foster inclusive, consensus-oriented discussions that put the needs of the state ahead of any one party, program or institution. Funders must demand quantified results from their investments - not just philosophical approaches to issues that may (or may not) generate returns years in the future.

Finally, our economic development approaches must follow a path that provides tools for success, rather than simply providing more money. We should be teaching our workforce - and companies - how to fish, rather than just supplying them with a fish or two. Too many times our approach to economic development involves simply providing grant money or other economic incentives.

If the underlying elements for success are not in place within an organization, this money is wasted. It's vital that growing organizations also have the underlying systems to turn this economic support into economic success.

These are great and improving times for manufacturing in Wisconsin. We are positioned for a thriving future and a growing economy. Our leaders are beginning to "talk-the-talk" around cooperation and coordination in order to align our investments of time and resources to generate the needed results. Now it is time for these leaders to "walk-the-talk" and catalyze the actions necessary for success. Driving Wisconsin's economy forward depends upon it.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports