As Wisconsin’s economy continues to improve and the state’s unemployment rate drops to pre-recession levels, companies in all industries and all corners of the state are becoming increasingly concerned about being able to hire and retain qualified workers to accommodate their growth and expansion plans.

Wisconsin’s jobless rate of 4.8 percent is nearly half what it was during the height of the recession, and forecasters expect it to continue to decline throughout 2015. Meanwhile, the number of people employed in Wisconsin is 2.9 million—an all-time high. And the state’s official job board—The Job Center of Wisconsin—currently lists more than 80,000 openings.

That’s great news for those seeking work because it means there are more opportunities available than there have been in years. However, it’s causing some angst for employers around the state who need to fill those positions with qualified workers.

Of particular concern is attracting professionals under 40 to YP Week2Wisconsin—and keeping them in the state. U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that Wisconsin is losing about 9,000 college graduates under 40 each year—many of whom attend college in the state and then leave after they graduate.

“As I travel around the state, I have heard company officials and others voice real concerns about being able to attract and retain young professionals in Wisconsin,” says Tricia Braun, deputy secretary and COO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), the state’s lead economic development agency. “Wisconsin certainly isn’t alone in this issue, but it’s imperative that we develop a strategy to keep our best and brightest workers here and to ensure that Wisconsin is a destination of choice for others seeking post-college career opportunities and a high quality of life.”

To address the issue, WEDC has teamed up with young professional organizations throughout the state on a new initiative aimed at developing a cohesive strategy to promote Wisconsin as a great place for young adults to work and live. It’s the first effort of its kind in Wisconsin, and possibly the first in the nation.

The initiative kicked off with the first-ever statewide Young Professionals Week (YPWeek) in April. Organizations from Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, the Fox Cities, Kenosha, Wausau, Fond du Lac and Sheboygan hosted more than 100 events geared toward young professionals throughout YPWeek, which ran from April 11-18. Activities included cooking demos, art tours, speed networking and yoga, along with keynotes from speakers including former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, nationally renowned millennial expert Rebecca Ryan and Victoria Rogers of Kickstarter.

The week kicked off with a statewide event, the Bubbler Awards, hosted by the E3YP organization in Wausau. Ten businesses from across the state were honored as Wisconsin’s Best Places to Work for Young Professionals. Companies were nominated by their employees and evaluated by a panel of young professional leaders from across the state. The 2015 recipients are:

  • Associated Bank (Green Bay)
  • Kohl’s Corporation (Menomonee Falls)
  • Greenheck (Wausau)
  • Harley-Davidson (Milwaukee)
  • Robert W. Baird (Milwaukee)
  • Shoutlet (Madison
  • United Hospital System (Kenosha)
  • Weidert Group (Appleton)
  • z2 Marketing (Waukesha), and
  • Zendesk (Madison).

The week’s activities engaged the millennial workforce in experiences that are important to young professionals, while educating their employers on the important role these functions play in retaining their workforce. Workshops included learning “Entrepreneurship 101” with representatives from the Milwaukee Bucks, RentCollege Pads and a panel of successful speakers teaching “40 ideas in 40 minutes to Kickstart Your Career” and more.

“YPWeek Wisconsin established a framework for existing and emerging young professionals throughout the state to collaborate and brand Wisconsin as a workplace destination for all millennials,” explains Angela Damiani, president of NEWaukee, YPWeek’s founding organization. “The fact that YP groups from cities across the state came together and worked toward a single goal proves that folks are hungry and ready for this type of platform. Wisconsin only stands to gain with this united front.”

YPWeek Wisconsin is modeled after a program that NEWaukee, a social architecture firm serving southeastern Wisconsin, started in 2012 to provide a weeklong series of events focusing on discovery, adventure and meaningful conversations about the issues that matter to young professionals in the Milwaukee area.  Their program has seen significant growth over the years, from 21 events and 1,100 participants in 2012 to 34 events and 4,000 participants in 2014.  Because of this success, WEDC approached NEWaukee about replicating the effort across the state.

YPWeek Wisconsin is the first step toward what organizers believe will be a strong partnership between WEDC and the state’s young professional organizations. Other efforts being developed to help attract and retain young professionals are expected to include developing innovative ways to integrate young professionals into their communities; enlisting university alumni groups in recruitment and attraction efforts; improving the perception of what Wisconsin has to offer young professionals; and helping businesses understand the value of using young professional organizations for attraction and retention programs.

“This is a national issue, and we are excited about building a collaborative, statewide effort to engage young talent,” Braun says. “We believe this first-of-its kind initiative will demonstrate that Wisconsin is a national leader in millennial engagement, dynamic workforce and leadership development, and help establish the state as an ideal workplace destination for young workers.”

(April 2015)