Good news, bad news

Full employment is both a blessing and a curse for the Fox Cities

Posted on Mar 1, 2018 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For the Fox Cities, as is the case for so many regions and communities, the good news when it comes to the jobs outlook is also the bad news.

“We’re at full employment,” says Peter Thillman, the recently appointed vice president of economic development for the Fox Cities Regional Partnership. “Everybody who wants a job can get a job. The problem is, that kind of limits your ability to grow your business.”

While the circumstances present a challenge to employers, the upshot is that employees who lost their jobs due to closures at Appleton Coated and the Gannett Co. printing facility in Appleton can find new positions quickly, Thillman says. He anticipates wage pressure this year as employers continue to vie for workers.

Of course, looming large are Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s announced plans to close its Neenah Nonwovens facility and Cold Spring Road plant in Fox Crossing, resulting in the loss of about 600 jobs. The move is part of a larger plan announced in January to cut up to 5,500 jobs and close 10 plants worldwide.

The restructuring program aims to reduce Kimberly-Clark’s structural cost base and improve its flexibility to invest in brands, growth initiatives and capabilities to deliver future growth, according to the company’s press release revealing the plan.

Gov. Scott Walker has called for providing additional tax credits to Kimberly-Clark to ensure the company retains its two facilities in Neenah and Fox Crossing. The governor said he would work with the legislature to approve an increase in the tax credits available for job retention from 7 percent in current law to 17 percent — the same percentage used to attract Foxconn.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat and Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson proposed creating the Papermaker Fund, which would help area paper companies retrofit and make capital investments to help save jobs. It calls for redirecting 1 percent of funds earmarked for Foxconn to the paper industry.

Thillman says his organization can’t spring to action until Kimberly-Clark files a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, a U.S. labor law that protects employees, their families and communities by requiring most employers with 100 or more employees to provide 60 calendar-day advance notification of plant closings and mass layoffs of employees.

“The issue we have is we’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Thillman says, noting that in the meantime FCRP is working with the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board to prepare.

Thillman views the situation with some optimism. He compares it to 2016, when Brillion Iron Works and Manitowoc Co. announced closures in quick succession, shedding almost 2,000 jobs simultaneously. Despite that large number, unemployment remained unchanged.

If the Kimberly-Clark layoffs come to fruition, they could provide an opportunity to put those workers into companies that need talent, Thillman says. He anticipates the Fox Cities can handle the disruption.

0318_IO_Economic_Dev_graph_1Recruiting the next generation
In March, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce will hold its expanded career expo. Previously held for eighth-graders at Lake Park Sportzone, the event this year will be held over two days, March 14-15, at the Fox Cities Exhibition Center.

Day one will bring 2,500 eighth-graders from around the Fox Cities to explore careers and meet with 72 employers. On day two, around 2,000 high school students will meet with those same employers as well as two- and four-year colleges. In addition, teachers at both levels have developed lesson plans to prepare students.

The event, in part, aims to reach the 25 percent of Fox Cities high school students who graduate with no plan for the next phase of life, says Patty Milka, vice president of talent and education for the Fox Cities Chamber. High school students can connect with employers to discuss job shadows and apprenticeship opportunities.

“It’s really a conference-job fair all in one,” Milka says. “A lot of kids don’t know how to give an elevator speech. This will help them learn how to talk about themselves.”

In addition to efforts at the K-12 level, Thillman says the region needs to continue to work at luring “boomerangs” — young adults who left the area for a bigger city but now may be looking for a safe place to raise a family — and retaining students from other areas or states attending private colleges such as Lawrence University or St. Norbert College.

“That’s talent that’s here,” he says. “Let’s keep it. Let’s try to make them love the Valley and stay in the Valley.”

0318_IO_Economic_Dev_graph_2A focus on young professionals
The work of Pulse Young Professionals Network, which operates through the Fox Cities Chamber, is all about cultivating a sense of connection, making the Fox Cities a place where people want to live and work, and creating cultural amenities, says Nikki Hessel, director of Pulse.

YPWeek, an event started through Milwaukee-based young professional organization NEWaukee, will run in the Fox Cities and statewide April 20-28. Hessel says the platform in the Fox Cities is growing every year, and the organization is working to determine its final lists of events.

One event that’s a go is Bazaar After Dark in downtown Little Chute on Saturday, April 28. Pulse will again partner with the Greater Fox Cities Habitat for Humanity to have the events coincide with Rock the Block community build events.

“I’m really excited for 2018,” Hessel says. “It’s exciting when you see all the planning and dreaming come together.”