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GROW Wisconsin addresses rural workforce shortage
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I serve as the ranking member of the Senate Economic Development Committee, which recently completed a series of listening sessions around the state.  We heard from local business leaders, economic development professionals, educators, and other civic leaders.  Every place we went, we heard concern expressed about the status of the state’s educated and skilled workforce, but the situation in rural communities appears especially challenging.

Rural villages, towns and cities have to compete with every other community in Wisconsin, as well as those out of state, for a shrinking supply of skilled workers and the leaders we spoke with said that competing with the cultural and economic resources big cities offer can be a challenge.  However, the quality of life in Wisconsin’s rural communities is also attractive, especially to many young university and technical college graduates.  The scenic beauty of our lakes and forests, affordable housing, safe streets, good schools and strong sense of community create the kind of environment that many would like to call home.  Unfortunately, if these communities can’t attract the skilled workers they need to allow businesses to thrive and grow, their local economies will decline, along with the quality of life they can provide.

To address the workforce shortage in rural communities, I have teamed up with a bipartisan group of legislators to introduce the Growing Rural Opportunities & Workforce in Wisconsin Program, or “GROW Wisconsin.” Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Rep. Warren Petryk (R-Eleva) and Rep. Nick Milroy (D-South Range) have joined me to author the bill, which would help address Wisconsin’s rural workforce shortage by offering student loan relief to college grads who move to rural communities.

GROW Wisconsin would provide grants that are matched by counties that choose to designate themselves as GROW Communities.  Individuals who have completed a higher education program and who move into a GROW Community will have payments made on their student loans equal to 20% of the individual’s outstanding student loan balance, up to a maximum of $15,000, in equal shares over a maximum of five years.  Local companies would also be allowed to pay their county’s matching dollars in order to help facilitate the county becoming a GROW Community.

Our proposal is based on recommendations made by the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, which Rep. Petryk and I served on, as well as on Kansas’ successful Rural Opportunity Zones program.  This Kansas program has helped rural counties attract millennials who are starting families and who want to take positions within their home communities or start new businesses.  Since the program began in 2011, the state has received over 2,000 applications, from mostly young professionals with children.  As a result, new home construction and rising public school enrollment are happening in areas of Kansas that have not seen growth in decades.  Because our proposal presents a unique way to help solve Wisconsin’s worker shortage in rural areas, GROW Wisconsin has attracted strong support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as from the Wisconsin Counties Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

As our state contends with a growing shortage of educated and skilled workers, GROW Wisconsin would offer an attractive incentive to encourage people with university and tech college degrees to come to rural communities, allowing businesses to grow and strengthening the economies of our small towns, villages and cities.  It would also provide a powerful tool to help rural communities build their economies and preserve their quality of life for generations to come.  I am hopeful that the GROW Wisconsin proposal will be quickly adopted so that our state will have an additional tool to help college grads and build our rural economy.

Lassa  (D-Stevens Point) has represented the 24th Senate District since a special election in April 2003. She previously was a member of the Wisconsin Assembly, representing the 71st District from 1998-2003.