BOSCOBEL - The local worker shortage came to a head over the July 4 holiday weekend at Boscobel’s Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF). The prison was so short-handed that Warden Gary Boughton had to pull a couple of shifts on the housing unit over the weekend.
“We had it covered going into the weekend,” he said. But last-minute sick leave left the staff stretched. Boughton took half-shifts on Saturday and Sunday to ensure that no-one patrolled the housing unit alone, he said. “All I am is another pair of eyes and ears.”
Across Boscobel’s leading employers, similar stories reverberate. The worker shortage that is impacting the rest of the U.S. is also affecting local businesses.
The coffee-klatch explanation for the so-called Great Resignation is that “no-one wants to work anymore.” But the picture on the ground in Boscobel is more complicated.
Grant County’s unemployment rate is at an historic low, while participation in the labor market is similarly high, according to Tom Pethan a labor market economist covering Southwest Wisconsin for the state’s Department of Workforce Development. May’s unemployment rate was 2.3 percent—seventh lowest among Wisconsin’s counties. “That is the lowest number it’s been going back to 1990,” Pethan said.
“I don’t see a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, particularly now with inflation,” said Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County Economic Development Corporation. “We’ve never seen anything like this for unemployment or labor force participation.”
Among the factors impacting the local worker shortage are changes in Boscobel’s population dynamics, Pethan said. The population is shrinking and the percentage of people over 65 is growing. In 2010, the city’s median age was 34, and 13 percent of the population was over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). By 2020, the median age had risen to 44, and 20 percent of the population was over 65. “Typically, you see a rapid decline in participation in the labor pool after 65,” said Pethan.
In other words, Boscobel needs to retain and recruit younger workers to solve the labor shortage. The major obstacle to doing so is a lack of housing.
Brisbois said that his top concern right now is housing that’s affordable on working-class wages. “Sure, we’ve got to attract new workers, but we just don’t have the housing for them, either rental or existing houses for sale,” he said. “Without housing, we’re not going to address the workforce shortage.”
Theresa Braudt, administrator at Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital & Clinics echoed this impact. “I have found that it’s hard to recruit people here because housing is a barrier,” she said.
Bobbi Jo Bomkamp-Drone, a real estate agent for Century 21 in Boscobel, is feeling the effects of the housing crunch firsthand. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything like this market,” she said.
One of her clients, approved for a loan backed by the Veterans Administration, looked for a full year before he found a home. “He just wanted a home for his family, and it took us a year of multiple offers, $20,000 and $30,000 over the asking price. It makes it a lot harder when you’re fighting with all these other buyers,” she said.
The last three houses Bomkamp-Drone sold were to work-at-home professionals from Milwaukee, she said. She reports that such buyers, who bring a cash offer after selling an existing home, are beating out first-time home buyers with a conventional mortgage. “They can afford to come down here and buy a house priced at $200,000 here that would have been $400,000 in Milwaukee. Our locals can’t afford that.”
Boscobel’s graying population compounds the problem. Nearly 60 percent of owner-occupied houses in the city are home to someone 55 years old or older, while 35 percent are occupied by someone 65 or older, according to the most recent CSA.
“It’s a huge issue. The elderly can’t find anything to downsize to,” said Lisa Wallin-Kapinus, Administrator for the Boscobel School District. She has been looking for housing for one of the school principals with no luck. “We can’t find anything—to buy or rent.” Instead, her teachers commute from neighboring communities. One travels all the way from Oregon, Wisconsin, a one-and-a-half hour drive.
The situation in Boscobel closely mirrors housing shortages across the state. A report commissioned by the Wisconsin Real Estate Association in 2019 traced the deficiency to the 2008 Great Recession. While the economy eventually regained lost ground, the housing industry did not.
The report names several factors, including tepid efforts statewide to develop and build new housing, rising construction costs, and zoning and regulations that favor larger lots and more expensive homes. Today, ironically, the worker shortage is compounding the problem.
“I’ve talked to contractors, and they can’t find people to build them because the labor market is so tight,” said Brisbois.
At the WSPF, a chronic shortage of guards has led to long hours of both voluntary and involuntary overtime to cover shifts. Open shifts are allocated by seniority to volunteers, as well as staff from other nearby prisons, according to the warden. When they run out volunteers, supervisors “pre-order” staff—essentially, involuntary overtime. It’s common to end an eight-hour shift and be “ordered” to work an additional 8 hours, back-to-back.
All told, according to Boughton, that adds up to between 20 and 30 people every day working overtime for an average weekly of 1,000 hours. The current job vacancy rate at the prison is 35.2 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Other area employers are also struggling to fill vacancies. Town and Country Sanitation, for example, has instituted changes in garbage handling procedures, in part to increase efficiency to compensate for lack of workers, according to owner Doug Enke, who spoke recently at a City Hall forum.
There’s no short-term fix for Boscobel’s worker and housing shortages, but there is some hope for the near-term future.
The first of five new eight-unit apartment buildings is under construction between Highway 61 and Sanders Creek on the northwest side of Boscobel. These are multi-bedroom apartments designed for working families and will likely rent for around $1,000 a month. The city also recently purchased 10 vacant lots in the Pine Shores housing development in the hopes of luring a developer to build single-family housing on them.
Another initiative is designed to spur workforce development. Last month, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College announced that it has received a $2.9 million grant to help retrain workers and fill empty job positions in the area, including Boscobel. Spending will be coordinated with local manufacturing companies, and “will help businesses train more than 500 employees, hire more than 300, and promote dozens of incumbent workers over three years,” according to a press release announcing the grant.
“The key to solving this, long term, is education,” said Dennis Cooley, the Charger Leadership Director at SW Tech. “The key going forward is that we’re talking to younger people and letting them know they can find their dream job right here in southwestern Wisconsin, and they can find it right now.”Cooley said that the grant might also help ease the housing crunch. “We’re talking about that too,” he said. “How do we build our building trades education? There’s an opportunity here, and we can create a new opportunity for entrepreneurs to step up. It’s happened before.”