The news from of the Fox Cities Regional Partnership’s 2017 Economic Outlook Survey was resoundingly good, but the region faces one tough foe in the form of a skilled worker shortage.
Sales, profits and employment all increased from 2015 to 2016. Most of the 216 companies surveyed project continued growth in 2017, with around 30 percent saying they plan a local expansion this year.
“We had about 90 percent of employers say their employment remained either the same or higher than last year,” Beth Pritzl, FCRP’s director of research and technology, said at the Fox Cities Economic Outlook Breakfast.
Overall, companies responding expressed optimism, with the majority anticipating that both the Fox Cities and national economy will grow by the end of 2017.
A shortage of skilled workers is the largest barrier standing in the way of success, however, with many employers saying the talent pool right now is below average to poor, says Pritzl.
The good news? Overall, more than 38 percent of employers surveyed identified worker productivity as the best aspect of doing business in the Fox Cities. They only wish they had access to more of those productive workers, with about 51 percent citing availability of necessary talent as their biggest challenge.
Nationally, the number of unfilled positions has reached an unprecedented level, Pritzl says, and the Fox Cities is not alone in battling this problem. The region’s unemployment rate sits at just 3 percent. “We don’t have a lot to squeeze from right now.”
To address the problem, the FCRP is looking to recruit more people into the region. In addition, it’s encouraging employers to look at number of options, including up-skilling current workers, offering more flexibility in salary and benefits, and focusing on company culture.
Despite challenges, Pritzl has hope. “The outlook looks very bright as long as we get people in the seats.”
The event’s keynote speaker, William Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird, discussed the state of the U.S. economy.
He described economic forecasting as a “fool’s errand” and identified adapting, watching and learning as you go as better strategies. “We like to tell stories, but we need to be very, very wary of narratives.”
In looking at the economy, people can have views and create forecasts, Delwiche says. Focusing on them too heavily, however, can take away from opportunities to look at ideas that challenge that or offer a different point of view.
Delwiche says some worry that the United States is due for another recession, but conditions overseas are good, and neither the United States nor the global economy appears poised for recession. He points to jobless claims at multi-decade lows and near-record-high job openings as positive signs.
Overall, Delwiche is optimistic about the nation’s economic outlook. “We’re breaking out of the slow growth environment we’ve been in,” he says. “It’s hard to believe it because we’re locked into this view that what we’ve experienced recently is what we’re likely to continue to experience, but if we look back five years from now, I think we’ll be able to say … this is when things started to turn, we got some confidence back, we started to improve.”