Door County’s Looming Labor Problem

Welcome to a new beginning.

After something like 13 years of writing this column for The Door Reminder I will now be found in the pages of The Peninsula Pulse. This change may be overdue, given my ardent advocacy for support of locally owned/locally operated businesses, but honoring commitments and loyalty kept me from moving over until now.
So now, after over 12 years, this column begins again in, what I believe to be, Door County’s best publication – that also happens to be locally owned and locally operated.
Last month, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development issued their latest update to Door County’s workforce profile. Among the many interesting features of this report (and the ones that preceded it) are the population projections through the year 2020 for the Door County peninsula.

Over the past three years that I have written about these reports, very little has changed in the overall data. One thing that has changed, however, is the strength of the wording within the report. A case in point is the following: “Door County’s labor force, for all intents and purposes, has likely reached its maximum level for the foreseeable future.”

To illustrate this point, the report features a table that shows a steady decline in the labor force: from 17,278 in 2002 to 17,112 in 2003 and 16,890 in 2004. In addition, the labor force participation rate (which measures those working or seeking work against the available labor force) has shown a sharp decrease since 2002.

Once again, strong wording accompanies this data: “Door County’s labor force participation rate (LFPR) is virtually the same as the state’s and was higher than the nation’s in 2004. Looking back, the county’s LFPR spiked upward faster than the state and the nation from 1990 to 2000…But because of the county’s accelerating older demographic it is likely that its overall LFPR will decline rapidly in the coming decades, to a level below the state and the nation. In short, its labor force eligible population will increase, but the county will have relatively fewer workers on a proportional basis because fewer will be willing to work.”

According to state estimates, Door County has added just 1,338 more residents since the 2000 Census, which represents a net growth rate of 4.8%. However, this growth was entirely due to the “in-migration of new residents.” Without the transplanted population factored in to the figures, the peninsula’s population decreased by 1percent as deaths outpaced births.

So what about those labor force projections that are central to this report and the strong wording I’ve been quoting? The table below shows the most recent projections for the county’s labor force by the Department of Workforce Development. Keep in mind that 16 year-olds mark the beginning of the workforce for this department’s purposes.

For illustrative purposes, let’s take the same table but this time express the numbers as percentages of the total labor force.

Since I wrote my first column about these reports over two years ago, every updated report has presented roughly the same projections. Yes, there have been slight adjustments in the numbers, and this year’s report includes stronger terminology interpreting the data, but the essence of the reports remains the same. By 2020, according to this newest report, the peninsula’s population will have grown to only 30,800 – just 1,500 more residents than the population estimate for 2005.

If there is any problem with these reports, it is that the emphasis always seems to fall on the fact that Door County’s population is skewing more and more toward older age groups. The fact that Door County is the choice of more and more retirees is indisputable. But retirees, even having a significant portion of the peninsula’s population in the older age categories, are not problems.
Our growth rate, discounting “in-migration,” from 2000 to 2005 was actually a decrease of 1percent. Now consider the projections that show our population “growing” by just 1500 residents in 15 years.

You see, the problem these reports document has nothing to do with our aging population. The real issue facing the county that these reports document is our drastically shrinking youth population and labor force.

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