In late February of this year, Deputy Secretary Sam Rikkers and I had the privilege of visiting Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We had planned to visit a number of companies with a presence in Wisconsin and to learn more about the state of manufacturing and business in those countries. However, what we envisioned became something very different when three days before we landed in Frankfurt, Russia invaded Ukraine.
As we sat down to our first dinner with officials from Wisconsin’s sister state of Hessen, it became clear that the value of our visit was much greater than we had thought. For 45 years, we’ve had this relationship with Hessen, a state in Germany that is remarkably like our state. Agriculture and manufacturing form the foundation of their economy; there’s some tourism and lots of beer. But the relationship is akin to old family ties. There are cultural ties and even actual family ties: I was able to meet my mother’s first cousins in Wiesbaden while we were there.
So during that first dinner, when Minister for Digital Strategy and Development Kristina Sinemus welcomed us with tears in her eyes and fear in her voice, we began to understand. And the following morning in a meeting with Hessen business and state leaders, they articulated fears—about energy security, food security, refugees and, of course, violence—they were now grappling with. As we walked one morning, we saw the frantic loading of a truck with diapers and clothes and food. We knew where that truck was headed.
It seemed initially that our visit would be overwhelmed with news and conversation about the war. But what actually happened was quite different. The discussions were about relationships and how we could strengthen our connections. Allegiances, it turns out, are based not on transactions but long-term trading partnerships between businesses, student and family exchanges, and collaborative research binding our universities and researchers.
Indeed, it was precisely the time for economic development to be in the room—because it’s economic development that creates relationships and networks, and that acknowledges the importance of community and prosperity. Economic development doesn’t just try to fix the past; it thinks about the future.
Over the last few years, our collective experiences have hammered this point home. Across the changes wrought by pandemic, war, climate change, economic and racial inequities, and political polarization, one lesson has been consistent: Economic development is not about numbers and rankings, or about inputs and outputs, or profit and loss margins, or buildings and capital investments.
It’s about people.
Whether we’re in business or government, education or community development, we do what we do because of and for the people in our communities. We think of our families, our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our coworkers and our bosses. We think about the store owners, the folks who serve us coffee in the morning, the people who build our houses and fix our cars, who manufacture our cutting-edge technologies and care for our children.
Putting people first has transformed our work and our relationships at WEDC. We continue to invest in businesses large and small and in communities, but our focus is on how these investments are benefiting people.
It means that when we talk about creating jobs, we need to ask: How much do these jobs pay? Are these family-sustaining jobs? Are these investments creating opportunities for people who may not have had these kinds of chances before? And what kind of resources do communities need to attract and support workers?
Many of our recent initiatives have focused on building relationships and supporting our Wisconsin communities. We recognize at WEDC that, as a statewide organization, we don’t have all the answers. Problems are often best recognized and solved by people at the local level, with the state providing the resources to make those much-needed changes happen. That’s the guiding principle behind both our Main Street Bounceback Grants and the Workforce Innovation Grants—that we at the state level act as the catalyst for local leaders to innovate and advocate for the people in their communities.
As we work together on some of the big challenges ahead of us—such as workforce, sustainability and competitiveness—we must keep our focus on people. Our experience with the Workforce Innovation Grants, for example, has demonstrated that meeting the needs of workers outside the workplace—for things like housing, training and education, and transportation—is often just as critical as finding the right people for a job.
Similarly, our drive to keep our businesses competitive requires not just a knowledge of the latest technological trends but a deeper understanding of the human element—how these changes will transform our relationships with workers and their work.
As partners in economic development, let’s continue to keep the people and the communities we serve top of mind. Together, Wisconsin can approach the future—through relationships and communication, and through the open exchange of ideas with all communities. We know that by hearing all voices and bringing everyone to the table, we can have each other’s backs. We can succeed and be prosperous.