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By Cara Dempski and LeAnn Ralph
HUDSON — St. Croix County, along with the rest of Wisconsin, will be facing a workforce shortage over the next 10 to 20 years.
The lack of people moving into Wisconsin will be “the biggest issue” facing the state, said Dale Knapp, director of research and analytics with the Wisconsin Counties Association, who spoke at the October 6 meeting of the St. Croix County Board.
Demographic problems will create significant workforce problems, he said.
The growth in the workforce has flattened since 2010 and it will not grow for the next 20 years. The lack of workforce growth will have a large impact on the state’s economy, Knapp said.
The five-county region that includes St. Croix County and Dunn County is already below the projections from 2013. The five-county region has had 7,400 fewer people, and St. Croix County has had 4,500 fewer people than projected, he said.
The assumption was that the migration patterns and the birth rates would increase after 2013. From 2015 to 2020, 112,000 people were expected to move to Wisconsin, but instead, only 7,000 people moved to the state, so the working age population is less than had been forecasted, he said.
Historically, because of the good public school system and low crime rates, Wisconsin has been good at attracting young families, Knapp said.
But since 2010, Wisconsin has lost 24,000 people in the 20 to 30 age group, has lost 12,000 people in the 30 to 40 age group and has lost 24,000 people in the 50 to 60 age group, he said.
“Something has changed to make it less attractive for young and middle-aged families to move here,” Knapp said, adding that while no one is sure what is driving the lack of migration and what is causing people to leave Wisconsin, “we need to figure it out.”
In the five-county region, the 20 to 29 age group lost 2,800 people while the 30 to 39 year old age group lost 4,000 to 5,000 people and the 40 to 50 age group lost about 1,000 people, he said.
St. Croix County, and the five-county region, lose people when they go off to college, and then those people do not move back. Northern Wisconsin has been “devastated” by people going off to college and not moving back, Knapp said.
The birthrate has been increasing and decreasing since 1990, but since 2007, the birthrate has been declining, and in 2018, there were the fewest births since 1973, he said.
There will be a significant workforce shortage going forward. It takes 20 years to create a worker, and those born in 2018 will not enter the workforce until 2038. Somehow, Wisconsin must shift the migration patterns, Knapp said.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be revealing the answer to the migration problem, Knapp said.
In past years, businesses have been hesitant to have their workforce telecommute, but with the pandemic, there has been a surge in telecommuting, he said.
A survey earlier this past summer showed that when the pandemic is over, there will be an additional 10 million full-time remote workers and additional 10 million part-time remote workers, Knapp said.
If people can work from home, they can move farther out from the urban areas. This will cause a shift in where people live, and it could attract a significant number of people to Wisconsin, he said.
Vermont, Knapp noted, is already offering telecommuters $10,000 to move to the state, and the program has been successful, Knapp said.
Telecommuters often will bring a spouse and children with them, and it would be a way to spark our migration patterns, he said.
Home sales in Wisconsin increased by 13 percent between June and August, with urban areas seeing a half a percent decline in home sales and rural areas seeing an increase of 13.2 percent, Knapp said, adding that rural counties are seeing an increase in building permits, although that may just be a “blip.”
“We need to think about how to let remote workers know what Wisconsin has to offer,” he said.
One problem with trying to attract telecommuters to Wisconsin is the uneven, and sometimes non-existent, broadband Internet access, Knapp said.
While 93 percent of people in the state have 25 megabyte download access to the Internet, broadband is great in the urban areas but is not so good in the rural areas, he said.
St. Croix County has been working on a broadband study, and broadband is available in 89 percent of the urban areas but is less than 50 percent in the rural areas, Knapp said.
Pockets of the state where the broadband access is poor need to figure out how to improve the access in order to be in the market for high-earning telecommuters with families to pay taxes and support public services, he said.
“We need to make sure we have broadband throughout the state,” Knapp said.
St. Croix County, he noted, is one of the worst counties in the state for rural broadband access.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the unemployment caused by the pandemic, it was assumed that the state and the counties would lose a huge amount of sales tax revenue, Knapp said.
As it turns out, St. Croix County is expecting a 13.3 percent increase in sales tax collected, which is similar to other smaller, rural counties, he said.
The reason for the gains in sales tax revenue is because of the federal stimulus money of $1,200 payments to individuals and the $600 per week federal boost to unemployment. The federal stimulus money has supported retail sales through July, Knapp said.
Modest growth is expected in the sales tax revenue over the next year, but the patterns are expected to go back to where they were before the pandemic, he said.