Current Economic Trends Signal Alarm

by Jim Schuessler, Executive Director, Door County Economic Development Corporation

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in April, a record low for the state. Before anyone starts handing out cigars and chirping “Happy Days Are Here Again,” there is a canary in the coal mine gasping for air, and these numbers are actually indicative of a problem that must be solved.

Wisconsin’s low state unemployment rate was in no small part the result of having nearly 15,000 fewer people in the labor force than at the same time last year.

The number of people classified as unemployed in Wisconsin did reach a seasonally adjusted record low of 88,100 in April, down 1,500 from March and 6,800 from April 2018. The reading is the lowest figure in data that go back to the end of Gerald Ford’s presidency in 1976. The Department of Workforce Development released the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last Thursday.

Due to seasonal impacts, Door County’s unemployment rate fluctuates more than the state overall. Our March 2019 non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate (the most recent county data available) was 5.1 percent, down more than 16 percent from March 2018’s 6.1 percent. That is a tremendous decline in only a single year.

For every three retirements in Door County, only two people enter the labor force. We are, in fact, in a negative feedback loop. Door County’s labor force ranks have declined nearly 11 percent during the past decade.

The official unemployment rate does not include people who have given up on looking for work, are marginally attached to the labor force or are employed part time for economic reasons. Including those groups, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate averaged 5.7 percent from April 2018 to March 2019, according to BLS data.

Door County’s labor force decline is not the result of lack of opportunity. The Job Center of Wisconsin’s job board alone reports more than 440 jobs available in Door County – many that offer family-sustaining wages and benefits. If Door County’s labor force numbers do not grow, then growth for local employers will be hampered.

So how can we reverse the decline and grow our labor force numbers?

Last fall, Team DCEDC added a new role to our economic development efforts that’s focused on achieving labor force growth today and, through alignments with our five school districts, the future.

Later this year, DCEDC will launch a new workforce-attraction campaign. That, along with alignments with initiatives such as Alumni Door County, is expected to help attract new people to our communities and help align with the successes of our countywide businesses.

Working on a parallel path, DCEDC – along with partners such as the members of our Attainable Housing Committee, Interfaith Prosperity Coalition and local municipalities – will help provide needed housing to meet the needs of this added labor force.

Some housing progress is already being achieved: Sturgeon Bay has 168 new apartment units either on line or under construction. It’s just a start.

Door County doesn’t need a coal mine, but we do need to add new members to our labor force to ensure a healthy and sustainable economic ecosystem.

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