First, the good news: The Economy is strong. Unemployment, consumer confidence, the housing market and other key indicators are showing more positive signs than we’ve seen since before the Great Recession.
Of course, most businesspeople don’t need surveys and experts to tell them this — they know when things are going well — but it’s music to the ears when economists affirm the good news (even when they’re the first to admit they can’t predict the future).
Early in the first quarter of the year is traditionally when the chambers of commerce and others take the temperature of the economy and share what they’ve learned with business owners striving to make decisions for the year. In our New North feature this month, we offer a glimpse of three such economic reports relayed to businesspeople in our region, and the news is consistent: Despite a few glimmers of caution — a recent downward slide in the stock market, the impact of low oil prices and a strong dollar affecting manufacturing exports — we’re in decent shape.
The numbers tell the story, but the anecdotes are always more fun. About 62 percent of some 200 business owners surveyed by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce say the economic vitality of the region is “excellent or good.” About the same number said last year was their best for gross profits since 2006. Remember the booming housing market back then? Remember how giddy so many people were about the stock market? That level of euphoria seems almost quaint today.
After all we’ve been through since then, we’ve trained ourselves to take the good news with a dose of humility. This brings us to a little bit of bad news: Low oil prices may be nice for a consumer perspective, but not so much for manufacturers — and in the New North region, where manufacturing makes up almost one-quarter of our economy, that may start to hurt.
On another point, while low unemployment is good for the economy, it poses unique challenges for employers. The challenge of finding and keeping people is a concern magnified in a tight labor market. Given that the baby boomer generation is just beginning to retire, replacing them — especially their depth of knowledge and experience — is already an enormous concern for employers.
How to address this? Staying on top of the game in talent attraction and retention is key. Fortunately, there’s a lot of energy around this issue in Northeast Wisconsin. At the Fox Cities Chamber’s economic outlook breakfast, Manny Vasquez of the Fox Cities Regional Partnership mentioned one step toward filling the gap is the Talent Upload program he and Chamber President Shannon Full spearheaded last year. The national award-winning program introduces college-age students from throughout the Midwest to companies looking for skilled professionals here.
Ensuring that our employers — and especially, our communities — appeal to young professionals is also a focus of the region’s young professional groups (known as YP for short). YPWeek, coming up mid-April, will call attention to the desires of this demographic at events throughout the state (see Connections).
With good economic news and more hiring, more companies expect to expand. This leads to economic development, including capital expansion and larger projects that boost entire communities. In Green Bay, the Titletown District is expected to be approved this month, with construction starting as the ground thaws. In Appleton, the approval of the Fox Cities Exhibition Center is giving nearby businesses the confidence they need to expand and grow, too.
Want to know more? I encourage you to read our special insert for InDevelopment. Our seventh annual conference showcasing economic and commercial development in the region will be March 23 in Appleton.
And, as always, I hope to see you there!