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Lawmakers hear testimony on state workforce issues

Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, asks questions Friday during a legislative hearing on the state's workforce issues. It was the first joint Assembly and Senate hearing on the topic.

ELKHART LAKE — Responding to a growing workforce shortage in Wisconsin, state lawmakers are calling for more legislative action to expedite worker training and attract more people to the state.

On Friday the Assembly and Senate workforce committees held their first joint informational hearing of the session on the topic with testimony from a dozen invited speakers.

The Republican co-chairmen said afterward they expect to draft legislation in the coming months to make it easier for businesses to obtain state workforce development grants and to entice businesses to train future workers.

Much of the hearing’s testimony echoed findings in the Wisconsin State Journal’s recent four-day series “Workers Wanted: Wisconsin’s Looming Crisis,” including that the state will need 45,000 more workers over the next seven years, that many employers are already having difficulty finding qualified workers and that the 65-and-older population in the state is expected to double between 2010 and 2040 while the working-age population is expected to remain flat.

“Our worker shortage affects every sector and threatens economic growth across the state,” said Michael Welsh, legislative affairs director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Association, which represents regional and local economic development officials. “Solving our workforce challenges will require a collaborative approach.”

The hearing capped WEDA and the Wisconsin Workforce Development Association’s three-day fall conference, which focused on the workforce issue. Economic and workforce development leaders from across the state discussed which programs are working, possible improvements, ongoing problems and solutions.

Welsh said all the attendees recognized the progress Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature have made on the issue — the latest state budget, for example, raises funding for the Fast Forward workforce training grant program to $76.9 million since 2013 — “but challenges remain.”

He said those include new hires not being work-ready, employers not having the capacity to comply with the reporting requirements of state workforce grant programs, the need for more talent attraction to the state, a lack of affordable housing and reliable transportation for workers and a need for “less of a focus on job creation and more on helping companies fill the job vacancies they have.”

Steve Cassady, vice president of technical services for Kohler Co., said the talent shortage in the state is “stifling.”

He stressed the importance of encouraging students who don’t have post-secondary plans to consider technical college. He also challenged the Legislature to consider what they’re doing “to elevate our state as a place to live, work and raise healthy families,” including transportation infrastructure and affordable housing.

Cassady also emphasized the importance of investment in the arts and cultural amenities.

“Life has to be interesting,” he said. “It can’t just be about finding bodies and teaching those bodies skilled trades and manufacturing roles without revitalizing and building our urban centers.”

The State Journal’s workforce series highlighted how software company Jamf is reinvesting in cultural amenities in downtown Eau Claire. Natalie Johnson, Jamf’s talent acquisition manager, told the committee the state has focused on rewarding businesses for locating in the state, but needs to encourage workers to locate here.

Rep. Dan Riemer, D-Milwaukee, said Cassady’s insights into the importance of making Wisconsin an attractive place to live was a key takeaway from the hearing. He said while Walker has done a good job branding the state as “open for business,” there has been less attention paid to attracting young people to Wisconsin.

“The university is one place where state policy has been a little myopic on that front by emphasizing that people need to graduate with degrees that people can work with,” Riemer said. “The humanities dissing is missing how important (quality of life outside of work) is to attracting talent and young people.”

The state is getting ready to launch a marketing campaign that will focus on what makes the state a great place to live, said Georgia Maxwell, deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development.

Maxwell also said the state has done a good job leveraging federal workforce grant funds so far, but she expects that pool of money will shrink under the Trump administration.

Rolf Wegenke, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the key to a successful future will be creating more “brain workers.” He encouraged the Legislature to make Wisconsin the first state in the country to offer tax credits to companies that pay college tuition for future workers.

“(Companies) would be in charge and be responsive to the marketplace,” Wegenke said. “It’s easier to give a tax credit for a Wisconsin employer than to give assistance to out-of-state students to study.”

Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, chairman of the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Military Affairs and Senior Issues, said the tax credit is one idea he’s interested in pursuing. Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, said he would like to find ways to make it easier for small companies that can’t afford grant writers to obtain worker training grants.

Drafting and passing legislation before the legislative session ends in the spring could be a challenge, the chairmen said. They added they would be interested in holding additional informational hearings around the state on the topic, as well as creating a Legislative Council Study Committee to help draft additional legislation next summer.

“We’ll do it as quickly as we possibly can,” Petryk said. “If we can make at least several strides forward by spring, that would be awesome.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.