Quantity And Quality Of Jobs Each Important In Wisconsin's Economic Recovery

Unemployment Is Down, But State Lags In Wage Growth
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The status of Wisconsin's economy as 2017 begins offers convincing fodder for just about any narrative about jobs in the state, as long as it's either buoyant and sunny or frustrated and pessimistic. That difference exists, in part, because Wisconsin's recovery from the Great Recession is genuinely mixed, as University of Wisconsin-Madison economist and Center on Wisconsin Strategy associate director Laura Dresser explained in a Jan. 13, 2017 interview on Wisconsin Public Television's Here And Now.

As Dresser argued, the reality of the job market isn't located between the "working and winning for Wisconsin" message Gov. Scott Walker expressed in his 2017 State of the State address and the warning by state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, in her minority-leader response, that "families I hear from are tired of being asked to sacrifice year after year, without any noticeable improvement in their economic situation." Rather, these storylines coexist within a broader jobs picture — with some long-term problems festering in the background.

The state's unemployment rate is down to 4.1 percent — it peaked at 9.2 percent in December 2009 — and Wisconsin is "well into an economic recovery," Dresser said. What persists is an imbalance she has previously discussed on Here And Now: Wages are picking up, but not enough to make up for opportunities working families lost over the course of the recession, and the jobs that are available aren't of comparable quality.

"Even when you have low unemployment rates, you have an abundance of low-wage jobs," Dresser said. "There is a big middle where there's much less dynamism and wage action."

Wage growth in Wisconsin isn't quite keeping pace with national wage growth, and hasn't brought households in the state back up to the incomes they were earning in 2007. In the fourth quarter of 2007, the average weekly wage in Wisconsin was $769, which is worth $895 in 2016 dollars. In the second quarter of 2016, the most recent for which the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has data, the average weekly wage was $856. A difference of $39 may not seem that far short, but extrapolate it over a full year, and the average worker is making $2,028 less per year.

Dresser does see some improvements in the economy, though, and plenty of assets Wisconsinites can build on. Workers in the state are finding better jobs and more hours, even though many still contend with low-wage jobs that offer little or no benefits and very unstable schedules. About 3 of every 4 people who used to work in manufacturing still do, and that remaining 25 percent could offer employers a lot of useful skills, Dresser said — lending additional credence to the argument that the challenge of connecting employees and employers is not quite so simple as a "skills gap."

"There's a lot of manufacturing skills in this labor market that just aren't finding homes," Dresser said.

Additionally, Wisconsinites are not under-educated, Dresser said, though evidence shows Wisconsin struggles to attract well-educated workers from outside the state. Even with unemployment returning to pre-recession levels, Dresser recommends the state prioritize jobs and education in an integrated effort.

"This is a long-term context, and to pretend that you instantly move from worrying about jobs to worrying only about education suggests kind of that one light switch or the other light switch is correct," she said.

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