WisBusiness: State jobs situation could be improving, biz owner says

By Kay Nolan

For WisBusiness.com

Madison small-business owner Bret Gundlach is one American whose top personal concern isn’t the nation’s lack of jobs.

Not only are he and his circle of friends employed, he’s hiring — he needs least one or two people with computer technical support skills to round out his staff of about a half-dozen.

To Gundlach’s surprise, this time he hasn’t been inundated with applicants after placing an ad on Craigslist. That makes him think the jobs situation is starting to improve in Wisconsin.

In addition, his is a small business that serves other small businesses — Gundlach owns TransformPOS, which develops electronic point-of-sale software for restaurants and taverns — and he’s observing a leveling off in staff cuts among his clients compared with a few years ago.

Gundlach thinks politicians could help Wisconsin build up employment by offering more incentives to small businesses, instead of focusing on only large corporations and banks. As for individuals, Gundlach’s observation is that education and professional skills have helped him and his friends survive a roller-coaster economy and job layoffs.

“In my circle of friends and family, I really haven’t heard about people who are struggling, that have been out of work for extended periods of time or can’t find a job or have to take part-time or underemployed kind of thing,” said Gundlach. ”

So I think maybe we’ve just been lucky, I don’t know. I’m living in Madison as well, which always has a lower employment rate — it hasn’t been as bad as I’ve heard elsewhere.”

Gundlach says of his friends, “Most of us are professionals, so it’s not, ‘the factory has closed and they lost their jobs’ kind of thing.”

The 44-year-old father of two — a son, 15, and a daughter, 12 — wants his kids to go to college for that reason.

“Hopefully, they’ll get a degree and would be in an professional environment and not so reliant on the ups and downs of the economy, too,” he said.

Right now, though, Gundlach worries that his kids will have a harder time finding part-time jobs than teens did in decades past.

“It seems like the high school, entry-level job is going to be harder to find,” said Gundlach. “Where there were many opportunities at a McDonald’s or a Target or wherever when I was a kid, I’m not so sure there are as many of those out there.”

Gundlach does know what it’s like to get a pink slip. Before becoming self-employed, his job fell victim to company downsizing more than once.

“I’ve been involved in corporate layoffs and cutbacks, where I’ve had to go and find another job, but it’s probably been a couple of months at the longest, that I’ve been unemployed. I’ve always been in sales and sales is in demand no matter where you go. If you can sell, somebody always wants to hire you because you can make the company more money.”

When political candidates promise to create jobs, Gundlach is skeptical. He attributes dismal job growth in Wisconsin to the hard times in general, and thinks Wisconsin is feeling the effects of the nationwide recession a bit later than other states.

“Whereas other areas of the country have dipped lower earlier and are now on an upper trend, I think we tended to dip later,” said Gundlach. “In 2008, 2009, 2010, I didn’t feel like my business was affected as much as people in other areas of the country, but it feels like in 2011 and 2012, we kind of hit a later dip and we’re going to have a later recovery of that, too. So I think maybe that’s why we’re not seeing the job growth that other areas of the country may be.”

Among his clients in the retail and restaurant industries, Gundlach doesn’t see many who have the ability to hire new employees.

“What I deal with is restaurants and bars and I think that whole market is still down,” he said. “I think it’s a new normal, is what it is. Four or five years ago, they were making a lot of money, it was not as risky and not as tight. Now, they’ve kind of adjusted and learned that lower staffing levels and lower sales forecasts are just going to be the way it is right now and they’re getting by, but it’s not wild success, so I think it’s been a real tightening up in that market.”

One thing Gundlach wishes politicians would do is work to create incentives for small businesses to hire people, such as not having to pay their full salary until the new position has had a chance to boost the company’s revenue.

“With a small business like mine, my suggestion would be to subsidize hiring another employee, like maybe that person would continue to get unemployment for another six months, or something like that, and ideally that works out and after six months, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you full salary because now we’re growing and things are good,’ ” he said. “But you don’t see programs like that — they seem to be more directed toward the larger organizations that have more influence.”