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Nov 13, 2019

A report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum indicates that more retirees and fewer young people could create a workforce dilemma for the state in the coming years. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, or MMAC, has partnered with the Milwaukee 7 to help companies in the region attract, retain and train workers in jobs that offer growth potential. In this episode of Brandstorm, Susan Koehn, vice president of the Talent & Industry Partnership and point person for this initiative, tells us more about the workforce issues facing southeastern Wisconsin and what is being done to help businesses now and in the future.


According to Susan, Wisconsin’s economic development and workforce development organizations have historically operated as two, independent silos. Economic development focused on corporate attraction projects, brick and mortar projects and building infrastructure.  Workforce development was involved in talent and training. Neither side was talking to each other, while the skills gap was growing larger in southeastern Wisconsin. Industry was blaming education for not producing the right kinds of worker’s skills to fill the jobs that were needed, and education blamed industry for not saying what skills were needed.

The recognition that talent was a key driver of economic growth sparked the first attempt to break down the walls between economic and workforce development around 2007/08.  The goal was to get the two sides talking to change the narrative.

MMAC/Milwaukee 7 Partnership

The MMAC is a membership-based Chamber of Commerce. The Milwaukee 7 is a regional economic development organization for the seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin: Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha.

When the Milwaukee 7 was formed in 2005, there was a realization that industry was involved in a zero-sum gain by poaching talent from each other. Collaboration was needed to bring in new businesses, expand existing companies and create new investments. The MMAC played a critical role in bringing the two organizations together and forming the Talent & Industry Partnership. Today, they share office space and staff and are working together to address the shortage of talent in the region.

Wisconsin Policy Forum Report Takeaways

Susan says the demographics are undeniable. The now-retiring Baby Boomers were followed by two million fewer Gen Xers and this trend has continued in birth rates. There are just fewer young people coming into the workforce. The recession may have also masked the talent shortage because there were fewer job openings. When the recession ended, companies that used to post jobs and receive hundreds of qualified applicants were now seeing three or four applications from people who did not qualify for the jobs.

So, while the report wasn’t surprising to people like Susan, it did confirm what businesses were seeing on the ground.

Analyzing Southeastern Wisconsin’s Labor Supply

Working with Manpower Group, research was conduction that indicates the workforce gap in the region’s seven counties will hit 38,000 in job openings by 2021.  Where are we going to find the people to fill them?

According to the Manpower research, there are pockets in the region where there are lots of potential workers who are on the sidelines and not working because they are no longer looking for jobs, are underemployed or ineligible. In fact, there are about 300,000 workers with a high school diploma, but no post-secondary degrees or credentials. Susan believes we could leverage of larger talent pool by taking a closer look at the job openings and determining if a college degree is really needed, or if an individual can come on board and be trained while on the job. She says, according to one of the tenets of sales, it costs far less to retain customers than acquire new ones. The same holds true for employees. Businesses can upskill the employees while on the job for far less and backfill some of the other jobs with higher education requirements with fresh talent.

Filling the Future Skills Gap

Southeastern Wisconsin is in a great position to improve the workforce dilemma through education and training. We have many excellent higher education institutions and a good K12 education system.  And, there is an openness now for industry and education to collaborate.

The industry can assist by providing real-world, learning opportunities, such as sponsoring classroom projects, job shadowing, internships, and guest business speakers. About 68-75 percent of college internships convert to direct hires.

Susan says legacy companies and industries in the region, like manufacturing, need to show innovation potential through more experiential learning opportunities. In fact, 67 percent of Americans believe more internships for young people would increase interest in manufacturing.

In Wisconsin, schools are mandated to provide academic as well as career planning, starting at the 6th-grade level through high school. MMAC has a program called “Be the Spark” that takes 7th graders from Milwaukee Public Schools on business tours. There is a push to increase the number of schools offering computer science classes and technical education for trades like plumbing, electrical and construction is making a comeback.

And finally, Susan says the Wisconsin Economic Development Committee (WEDC) has a program called “Think-Make-Happen that is targeting the likeliest candidates to attract and relocate to Wisconsin.  For instance, Wisconsin provides one of the most generous packages to provide support, incentives and free education to service members in the country.  The organization is also targeting alumni of Wisconsin institutions to come back and Midwest millennials who already live in colder climates to relocate to our state’s booming economy and great quality of life.

Opportunities for Growth

Industries with the greatest potential for growth in southeastern Wisconsin are financial services, healthcare systems and manufacturing companies that are intersecting with smart technology.  There is also an effort to build technology ecosystems like Milwaukee’s Water District.

Susan says while the challenge to fill the skills gap in our region is urgent, it is giving way to new ideas and ways to innovate and collaborate.  The Industry & Talent Partnership can help businesses, individuals and schools by connecting them with the right organizations and resources they need.

Connect with Susan:



Twitter:          @mke7talent