Economic forum: manufacturing industry impacted by lack of skilled workers

The lack of a skilled workforce is one of the major problems facing the manufacturing industry today.

In Wisconsin, manufacturing makes up about one in five jobs. A small labor pool is something the industry is struggling with and something local leaders tried to address at the 59 th Economic Forum in La Crosse Tuesday.

The manufacturing industry is a vital part of Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin has the largest number of manufacturing jobs per capita in the nation,” said James Hill, the executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corporation.

When Hill became the executive director 33 years ago, manufacturing jobs were in high demand, he said.

“At that time, unemployment rates were off the charts. La Crosse County had 12 percent unemployment,” said Hill. “So employers had the choice of whomever they wanted to hire. People were in abundance and wanted to work.”

Hill said seeking and getting employees was low on the list of things employers had to tackle. Now, that’s not the case.

“Today it’s reversed. Getting and keeping semiskilled workers is the No. 1 issue for all employers across the different lines of business,” said Hill.

“We have a workforce shortage in Wisconsin,” said Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. “We have about 13,000 factory jobs in Wisconsin that have gone unfilled because we can’t find the people.”

Bauer said fixing the problem isn’t going to be easy.

“We have to retain more people here and we have to attract more people in the state,” said Bauer.

But Bauer and Hill agree that something needs to be done, especially because it means so much to Wisconsin and the Coulee Region.

“It’s almost one in five jobs,” said Hill.

“Twenty percent of Wisconsin’s economy is manufacturing. Compare that with the United States at 11 percent,” said Bauer.

“The bottom line is, right now in Wisconsin, if you are willing to work, if you are drug-free, if you can learn a new skill and maybe you are willing to relocate an hour from where you live right now, you can find a good job in manufacturing,” said Bauer.

At the economic forum, speakers also talked about the strong housing and real estate market in Wisconsin. They said 2016 is off to a very good start, following in last year’s footsteps.