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Capitol Notebook: Why can't employers find workers?
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Wisconsin’s workforce is aging and often young people seem to be moving away. Employers are struggling to find qualified workers.

Consider a news report about the large Georgia Pacific paper mill in Green Bay. Each year about 100 workers, or about five percent of the workforce, are retiring.

Unemployment rates in the northeast area around Green Bay are running a half percent below the national average, according to state employment officials.

There appear to be plenty of job openings, but many of the vacancies call for different abilities than they did 20 years ago. More of the jobs require skills and training beyond high school, according to job experts.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area often hears about the difficulty in recruiting and retaining highly skilled college graduates. The talk is often described as a “brain drain” problem.

Regional income levels and community crime statistics have been cited as concerns of those being recruited from distant points for Milwaukee-based jobs.

The worker pinch has also been acute in smaller Wisconsin communities. Duane Ford, the retired president of the Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, cited the issue in a speech.

“One of the biggest challenges for rural communities is the out-migration of our children,” he said, asking whether communities are doing enough to promote themselves.

“How often do we say or imply that the lights are brighter or the grass is greener somewhere else?” he asked, noting that local employers often complain they cannot find enough talented applicants.

“We need to talk early and often to young people about the education, job, entrepreneurial and career opportunities in our hometowns.

“We need to realize that the local retention of young people is not and cannot be the sole responsibility of schools, colleges and universities. Parents, family members, employers, and all community members need to be part of the solution,” he said.

“We must stop or at least question explicit or implied judgments about the value of work or where the ‘grass might be greener.’ ”

It’s all right to praise those who go on and get a college education, he suggested, but there should also be three cheers for those in the blue-collar trades.

Smaller rural school districts have struggled with the combination of declining enrollments and reduced state aid. That may convince young families there are better places to educate their families.

Gov. Scott Walker has been urging families and high schools to have young people consider training for technical jobs that don’t require a full four-year liberal arts education.

A package of bills to help pay for getting technical and job-related training is expected to reach the governor’s desk later this month.

Wisconsin has lagged behind other states in earnings. The numbers are higher in neighboring Minnesota and Illinois. Do these statistics play a role in young people taking jobs in other states?

Wisconsin has balked at increasing its minimum wage – something that tends eventually to boost salaries across the board.

Wisconsin also has weakened the union movement by banning new contracts that require workers from joining the union and paying dues.

The minimum-wage stand and union changes were championed by employers. Now their problem is finding workers.

Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 36 years, including the actions of nine governors. The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.