WisBusiness: Education funding key to high-tech jobs

By Brian E. Clark

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In order to attract the high-tech jobs that are fueling the new economy, Wisconsin needs to protect its vaunted education system and do a better job branding itself, according to a group of academic and business panelists who spoke Wednesday night at the Kohl Center on the UW-Madison campus. .

Moreover, educators and business people must band together to convince legislators that supporting quality education and research is the best way to fuel a knowledge-based economy with jobs that can’t be outsourced.

The panel participants included Paula Bonner, president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association; Roberta Gassman, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development; John Neis, a senior partner in Venture Investors; Kevin Reilly, president of the UW System; Dick Vander Woude, communications director for WEAC; and John D. Wiley, chancellor of UW-Madison.

Quoting Richard Florida, author of “Rise of the Creative Class,” Wiley said forward-looking cities and states have no choice but to invest and then reinvest in the schools if they want to prosper by attracting scientists, artists and other problems solvers. Unfortunately, he said, Wisconsin is still weighted disproportionately to old economy jobs.

Wiley noted, somewhat glumly, that Florida’s most recent article in the Harvard Business Review – dubbed “America’s Looming Creativity Crisis” – says the nation is falling behind in this race.

He also warned that the drive to cut government – rather than reform the state’s tax system – could hurt Wisconsin’s schools. And he argued that passage of TABOR (Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights) by the legislature would lower revenue to education and “lead down the road to destruction.”

Unfortunately, he said, the state budget is a “zero sum” game in which someone’s gain is often another’s loss.

Gassman said Wisconsin lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs in the past three years and predicted many of them would never return because they are part of “Rust Belt” industries that have moved offshore.

A prosperous future lies ahead by funding education and research, and fostering tolerant, accepting and diverse communities that welcome bright people of all persuasions, she said.

And while a stadium full of football fans wearing cheesehead hats might be amusing, it doesn’t exactly depict a message that Wisconsin has one of the top public universities in the country or one of the best K-12 systems in the nation, she said.

“We have to do a better job of telling our story,” she said.

Vander Woude said too many Wisconsinites take their school systems for granted and blame educators for their relatively high taxes.

“On the other hand, I’ve met families who have moved to Wisconsin for our excellent public schools and say they don’t mind our tax rates because they no longer have to send their children to private schools for a good education,” he added.

Vander Woude also said a strong economy and good skills are inextricably linked.

“If we don’t grow, we won’t be able to fund our great schools,” he said. “Industries must create demands on schools. One without the other won’t succeed.”

However, he warned that budget fights in the Legislature over funding could set the state’s educational assets at one another’s throats.

“There could be growth or cannibalism,” he said.

“The question is, ‘What is Wisconsin?” he asked. “We should be proud of our brand of education. But it is at risk, even though all the people of this state should support it for their own self interest.”

“Half of General Electric’s value is its brand and reputation,” he said. “If Wisconsin education could do that, we’d be known for a lot more than our cheeseheads.”

Bonner said Wisconsin’s so-called brain drain is something of a myth because it is no greater than many surrounding states. However, she noted, unlike some neighboring states, Wisconsin does a poor job of attracting young professionals who were educated elsewhere because the Badger State lacks jobs requiring college degrees.

Neis told the gathering that venture capital-backed companies usually are focused on science and engineering and often pay twice as much as the state average. He said Madison has a growing number of high-tech and biotech companies and may soon reach what he called a “critical mass” of talent.

“Start-ups often fail,” he said. “We know that. The challenge is to get to a tipping point where talented people will come in from the outside because they know that if one thing doesn’t work, there will be other opportunities for them.”

And while the scientific community around the nation knows Wisconsin has top tier scientists and spends nearly $1 billion on research annually, he said the investment world has not gotten that message because the state has done a poor job of branding itself as an academic powerhouse.

Reilly, who has held his new job for about a month, said he worries that tuition increases in the UW System are weeding out students from poorer families. He also said the state must do more to turn Milwaukee’s economy around to keep it from being a drag on the overall economy.

In addition to creating more students with baccalaureate degrees, Reilly said the state must attract others from out-of-state.

“It’s a fact that the higher the baccalaureate level, the higher the per capita income level,” he said. “Producing and attracting baccalaureates helps create jobs that hold and attract other people with degrees.”

A former chancellor of the UW Extension programs, Reilly said the university could use good will created by that division to gain support for education throughout the state.

“We need those people who are outside of Madison to tell their stories, too,” he said. “We need everyone to be invested in our educational system.”

The event was co-sponsored by WisBusiness.com, the Wisconsin Technology Council, and the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Tom Still of the Tech Council moderated.