Commentary: Dispelling Stubborn Myths

By Caleb Frostman, Executive Director, Door County Economic Development Corporation

On the heels of Myles Dannhausen Jr’s June essay on retiring the bootstrap myth, I did a little “sole” searching myself and, in addition to deciding to kick the foot puns here, I felt compelled to encourage another persistent myth into permanent retirement.

Over the course of the past few months, I have had the privilege of meeting with leaders from across the region to discuss a wide range of topics, from immigration reform to taxes to health care to workforce development. The vast majority of these discussions are substantive, creative and collaborative. However, a recurring statement surfaces as one of two fatal societal flaws that affect our collective inability to fill our many job openings throughout the state and county:  People these days are choosing not to work out of sheer laziness or the incentives are greater to remain unemployed.

Every time this sentiment, or some iteration thereof, is declared in a meeting, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my chair. Whether it is the supposedly ubiquitous group of ne’er-do-wells that couldn’t pass a drug test if their livelihood depended on it or those unemployed but able-bodied, working-age, childless adults receiving Medicaid benefits, the animosity toward the accused slackers and their alleged effects on our economy is palpable.

I will get back to this in a minute, but first some perspective: Per the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s (DWD) June 2017 figures (released in July) there has never been a time when more Wisconsinites have been in the workforce (3,059,000), nor has there been a higher labor participation rate (68.9 percent) since that figure began being tracked. Wisconsin’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.1 percent is at its lowest since October 1999. Initial Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims ended 2016 at their lowest level in 30 years and continuing UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973. Per the report, both statistics were on a similar pace through the first half of 2017.

Those statistics directly and emphatically contradict the idea that there is a compelling incentive package for citizens to stay on the employment sidelines. Hence, my chair-shifting and discomfort, being familiar with these facts and figures, having anxiously awaited their release month after month.

Depending on the source, most people would agree that a stabilized unemployment rate should be somewhere around 5 percent. I’ve seen 6 percent, I’ve seen 4 percent, but most often it’s 5 percent. We’re at 3.1 percent. Thus, we’re dipping into 1.9 percent of the employable population that, in an average economy, is not employed but is looking for work. If 5 out of 100 people are usually looking for work but not finding it and today only 3.1 are, that’s nearly 40 percent greater recruitment of the marginally employable, which is a significant increase and indicates that, although it’s unlikely that all of those jobs are lucrative, the greater incentive (or necessity) is to work, not to cheat the system, fail drug tests, and collect checks from the government.

These same statistics at least partially explain why employers are having a difficult time finding workers that possess the standard workplace skills required for success (punctuality, reliability, ability to pass a drug test, etc.), seeing as nearly 97 percent of the employable population is working and a greater percentage of those who remain unemployed have likely had some or all of those professional shortcomings for some time, shortcomings that are more visible to potential employers when almost all of the more easily employable citizens are already working.

The second most cited reason I hear why we can’t fill our many job postings makes a lot more sense to me:  A cultural shift decades ago cemented a mindset that a four-year degree was the only path to personal economic prosperity and as a result, we are now facing a suffocating shortage in the skilled trades. We battle the stubborn mentality that in order to be challenged, fulfilled, and to reach one’s full professional potential, you have to work in an office setting, using only your brain and not your hands.

I recall this exact advice coming from my grandfather, who toiled long and hard pouring concrete for a living, amassing a modest amount of wealth that afforded winters in Florida and college tuition for his kids and grandkids:  “If you can find a job where you only need to shower in the morning and not again after work, you’re doing it right,” although his sentiments were more likely borne out of sore knees and a bad back than out of a lack of professional fulfilment or a light pocketbook.

As supported by the employment figures reported by the DWD, it’s clear to me that getting more folks into today’s workforce has much less to do with goading lazy bums off couches and barstools and more to do with providing adequate and targeted skills training at all ages, proactive workforce development, and creating and sustaining an attractive quality of life package to bring more bodies into our geographic area, whether that be through the recruitment of working age adults, better retention of our youth, and/or encouraging and supporting larger families.

At this juncture in our workforce crunch, with countless county employers struggling to fill their many openings, I feel it’s necessary to encourage creative, inclusive ways of finding and recruiting new workers to our area, rather than pointing to an oft-repeated, easily disputed anecdote of societal sloth and dereliction, which distracts us from finding real solutions to a real problem.

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