New North businesses getting back on track

Posted on Apr 7, 2021 :: Insight on Business, Web Exclusive
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One in six businesses nationwide closed in 2020 due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the nation is technically still in a recession, it is showing strong signs of recovery.

Closer to home, Wisconsin and the New North are seeing lots of optimism as the economy begins to rebound, said Jeff Sachse, interim director of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Center for Customized Research and Services. Since last April, the CCRS has conducted monthly surveys to get a snapshot of how businesses are doing and to get their thoughts on the future.

“Especially in the last month, business owners are optimistic, but we still have a long road to being where we were before the pandemic,” Sachse said during “Lessons Learned in a Pandemic World: The Impact of COVID-19 on Business Owners,” a virtual presentation led by UW-Oshkosh. “Most of the jobs lost in the region happened last April and May and those are slowly coming back since they are in areas hit hardest — hospitality and restaurants.”

Numbers also show women were disproportionately hurt by job losses, whether it was being laid off or deciding to leave the workforce due to the uncertainty related to school closings.

Helping women and people of color was the primary focus of a program launched by Microsoft and gener8tor to train workers in areas that need them, such as IT and customer service, said New North, Inc. President and CEO Barb LaMue.

She said high rates of vaccinations are bringing consumers back into businesses as they feel more comfortable visiting stores and restaurants. “The vaccine is a real game changer.”

As more people are vaccinated, the next big question on workers’ minds is, “When will we return to the office?” Sachse said. “There’s a lot of anxiety around that question as people wonder what the new normalcy will be. Businesses have taken a lot of steps throughout the pandemic, such as changing physical layouts and adding physical barriers, that can be rolled back as needed.”

While the New North region faced challenges throughout the pandemic, two industry sectors with a strong presence in the area — manufacturing and logistics and transportation — did well, LaMue said. “Both sectors saw demand hold steady and were able to come out quickly” from the pandemic’s effect on business.

Ann Franz, executive director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, said a survey of its members found near-equal numbers saw business increase and decrease during the early months of the pandemic.

“Our manufacturers responded well. One out of four made new products in response to demand for PPE products or out of necessity,” she said. “Despite what manufacturers thought about 2020, 73 percent are bullish about 2021 and 54 percent predict they’ll hire more talent.”

Finding employees with the right skills was a problem for many manufacturers before the pandemic and as businesses rebound, it is again becoming an issue for employers, Franz added.

Steven Anderson, owner of 920 Tattoo Co. in Oshkosh, said the early days and weeks of the pandemic brought more questions than answers but his business soon developed a plan to open safely.

“We took several steps to ensure not only our safety but also that of our customers,” Anderson said.

Some steps included eliminating walk-in appointments, reconfiguring the space to create private areas for each artist to work in versus having a single open space, adding to its retail line and opening an online store.

“We also utilized the different grants and loan programs available to help us keep going,” Anderson said.