Sereno column: Diminished consumer confidence reflects reality

Three out of four Wisconsin residents rated the quality of the state’s economy as fair or poor in a recent statewide poll, and said the current climate for jobs is diminishing their quality of life.

According to a series of recent Checkpoint public opinion poll questions conducted on behalf of the Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance, state residents also said they have strong sentiments about some of the key areas in which they feel the economy is lacking.

The Checkpoint economic and public affairs survey of 400 state residents was conducted May 14-20 and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

For example, more than three out of four residents (77 percent) rated the state’s economy as fair or poor in terms of the number of good-paying jobs available for young people. These sentiments were echoed during a series of statewide public forums in which participants noted that many college graduates from Wisconsin pursue jobs in other states because companies located elsewhere offer higher starting salaries, more prestigious positions and better opportunities for resume building and professional advancement.

During the public forums organized as part of the Wisconsin Way project, residents also expressed concern that as more young professionals gravitate toward other states, the smaller pool of remaining talent makes it increasingly hard for Wisconsin to attract or retain rapidly growing companies. Organized by the Wisconsin REALTORS® Association, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and Wood Communications Group, the public forums also drew many participants who cited the need for a more comprehensive economic development plan.

The Checkpoint public opinion poll also reflected strong interest in systematic job creation efforts; 72 percent of state residents rated Wisconsin as fair or poor in terms of having an effective economic development plan for the future.

In addition, more than two out of three adults (68 percent) rated Wisconsin as fair or poor when it comes to having healthy companies that are likely to grow in the state. And, 67 percent rated the state fair or poor on the number of “good paying jobs for people like you.”

These public perceptions about the fragile nature of Wisconsin’s economy are borne out in a separate series of statistics from the state Department of Workforce Development.

Through the end of May, companies filing notices with the agency for planned mass layoffs or plant closings reported 7,116 jobs were at risk in the weeks and months ahead. That number is up about 4 percent from the same period in 2007 when companies filed plans affecting 5,049 jobs.

In addition to the fact that more total jobs are to be affected by plant closings or layoffs this year, the number of workers identified in each event increased to an average of about 118 this year from 84 workers last year.

This increase is significant because when more workers in a particular location are affected by job losses, the community itself faces greater challenges on its road to recovery.

It is also important to note that this year’s results do not reflect the announcement by General Motors Corp. that it intends to close its Janesville plant by 2010 if not sooner.

In April of this year, the company announced that it would cut one shift employing 756, but closing the plant will eliminate some 2,400 jobs with many paying in the range of $28 per hour.

Given the scenario of growing job losses and a slowing economy, it is logical to wonder whether declining tax revenues will put Wisconsin’s finances further in the red and force the need for additional adjustments to the state budget.

If so, lawmakers are unlikely to get much sympathy or support from the public, which is increasingly skeptical about how well legislators are managing the fiscal challenges.

According to the Checkpoint poll, 15 percent of residents gave state government a failing grade for how well it is managing today’s challenges while 23 percent gave the state a “D” and 42 percent gave the state a “C.” Just 18 percent gave the state a “B,” while only 1 percent rewarded state officials with an “A.”

Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail [email protected] or call (608) 770-8084.