This editorial was published in the Spring edition of WMC’s magazine, Wisconsin Business Voice.
For Wisconsin to be competitive in the Knowledge Economy, we must address the present-day and future workforce crisis caused by an aging workforce, historically low birthrates, and net out-migration. It is often said that the first step in addressing any challenge is to acknowledge that you have a problem. We can check off that step. Leaders in government, business, and education “get it.”
Here is the rub: even if our strategies for expanding education and training for current Wisconsin residents succeed beyond expectation, we still will not have enough qualified, home-grown workers for high-end jobs. By 2040, almost one-quarter of Wisconsin’s population will be 65 or older. The growth in that age category will be over 95 percent. Those in the cohort of ages 18 to 64 are projected to grow by only .1 percent. Without in-migration of educated workers, Wisconsin will increasingly fall behind.
The Governor and Legislature have taken a bold step through the “Think/Make/Do” campaign, in particular reaching out to millennials in Chicago. Campaigns like this tell our story, but we also need to drill down to matching specific career interests of specific individuals with specific industries. The pathway to get this done runs through the campuses of our colleges and universities. Most university graduates end up living and working within 100 miles of their alma mater. Everyone knows of individuals who have come to study in this wonderful state and ended up remaining here. Employers, more than the state government, can make a difference in bringing the best and the brightest to Wisconsin. This is not an issue of current residents versus future residents. We need both. Grants to students are the most effective way to increase educational attainment, but, state student aid for out-of-state students is a “nonstarter” politically. However, I believe that Wisconsin employers, with the incentive of a state “Future Worker Tax Credit” could get this job done (The name, “Future Workers Tax Credit,” honors WMC’s “Future Wisconsin Summits”). A “Future Workers Tax Credit” would provide incentives to employers to invest in education and training of individuals (future workers), empowering employers, rather than government, to determine the skills and abilities they most need.
Here’s how it would work: The “Future Workers Tax Credit” would provide Wisconsin employers with a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the tuition they pay for any individual to attend a Wisconsin public or private, nonprofit college, university, or technical college. The credit would rise to 75 percent for individuals in fields identified by the Department of Workforce Development as being of critical importance to the state or for students eligible for federal Pell Grants (i.e., students with financial need).
My proposal provides an incentive for the private sector to invest in a way that will expand the talent pool for Wisconsin, and, more specifically, for their own companies. Equally important, the credit would give employers the ability to increase the supply of skills they actually need, rather than government picking winners and losers. In addition, employers would have four years to build relationships with participating students (e. g., with internships). Approximately 73 percent of students with internships while in college end up getting a job offer where they interned.
It would be up to the colleges and universities to recruit in-state and out–of-state students meeting the employer’s criteria (major, income strata, critical occupations). The employer would then pay the tuition and claim the credit on their next return.
In sum, we know the problem. The “Future Workers Tax Credit” can be part of the solution.