Marketing, branding are hot topics at first Senate jobs road show

Wisconsin already has plenty to offer both employers and workers seeking to flourish in high-tech, bioscience or manufacturing fields — the problem is that too few people know it, business and academic leaders told lawmakers on Thursday.

Calls for better marketing and ways to enhance the state’s “brand,” rather than ways to step up economic development efforts, dominated a Senate Economic Development listening session at MATC in Oak Creek. At the 90-minute roundtable session, five state senators — Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac; Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville; Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point; Alberta Darling, R-River Hills; and Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon — solicited feedback “to assist with formulating an economic development agenda for the remainder of the session.”

What they got was an outpouring of success stories, with participants singing the praises of the state’s water technology cluster, biotech companies that offer six-figure salaries, innovative university research and a century-old technical college system that offers relevant programs from web design to welding.

But many expressed frustration at Wisconsin’s reputation as a low-tech bastion of football and cheese, saying the Badger state lacks the “cool factor” needed to retain millennials and attract global businesses.

“To attract millennials we need to create an image that’s we’re a high-tech state,” said Lisa Johnson, CEO of Madison-based BIOForward, a professional association for the bioscience, pharmaceutical, medical device and research industries. “We won’t have any young people left and it’s going to cost us a fortune,” said Johnson, “unless we turn to a different message that we’re high-tech in water, high-tech in engineering, in energy and bioscience … if we could start having that image and we’re all believing in it and we’re all stressing our assets, like our university system, those are selling points.”

“The reality is better than the perception,” agreed Jela Trask, who said she moved from Chicago to work for Nelson Schmidt, a marketing and communications agency with offices in Milwaukee and Madison. “I had no idea that this is what Wisconsin has to offer.”

Dan Nelson, president of the firm, said the Wisconsin Department of Tourism successfully markets the state as a place for recreation and said the WEDC has “done a very effective job” of promoting the state as a place to do business, but stressed, “A key marketing piece is missing: there is no Wisconsin brand promoting it as a place to live.”

Scott Manley of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce told lawmakers that surveys of area business leaders consistently show that they want lower taxes and fewer regulations to ignite more development.

But Harald Steltzer of Dohmen Life Science Services said, “I’m happy with the taxes here,” adding that tax rates in his hometown of Boston are much higher. Steltzer said word just isn’t getting out that Wisconsin is generating high-paying bioscience jobs that spawn “indirect” jobs as well.

Manley said WMC’s Future Wisconsin project is exploring how Wisconsin is truly perceived, especially by the younger generation, as employers continue to say they’re understaffed.

“In June of this year, 70 percent of the CEOs who responded to our survey said they are having difficulty hiring,” said Manley. “Just six months ago at the end of December and beginning of January, that number was at 64 percent. A year ago, in June 2014, that number was 53 percent.”

Employers say they lack qualified workers for a variety of positions, including entry level jobs, engineers, nurses, machinists and managers, said Manley. He echoed the need to attract more young workers to replace retirees. “Wisconsin is one of a dozen states that has more baby boomers than millennials,” he said.

Gerald Peterson, Oak Creek’s city administrator, said Milwaukee’s water technology cluster likely owes part of its success to the location of its Global Water Center in the trendy urban neighborhood of Walker’s Point.

“It’s in a cool place,” said Peterson. “I know this, I’ve got a 26-year-old kid and he and all of his friends are the people that Wisconsin wants. They make between $70,000 and $150,000, but not too many of them are looking to stay in Wisconsin because we’re creating conditions but we’re not creating cool.”

May yer Thao, director of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, added that Wisconsin workers often are frustrated by the lack of a career ladder at their workplaces. She said she told one business owner who was complaining about a labor shortage, “Let’s remember you have a whole resource of folks at your fingertips. People have been working at your company for 10, 20-some years who have the experience but they’re not getting moved up.”

Thao urged lawmakers and the WEDC not to forget small businesses in underserved communities when extending financial assistance. “Many of our mainstream organizations are not reaching into these communities,” she said.

— By Kay Nolan