David Thiel took the job as executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corp. nearly 18 years ago. When Thiel started, most people did not consider workforce development a key part of economic development, but as many industries struggle with finding enough workers, the issue is now on the front burner. Thiel says he’s always believed that to be true.
Insight: What is the biggest change you have seen in 18 years?
David Thiel: Traditionally, expansion and retention have been a part of economic development. I have always believed retention is more important. It is important to take care of the people here. It is easier to take care of their needs than compete against larger cities when it comes to bringing in businesses or more workers. I have always seen the connection between the workforce and economic growth. Now, everyone is in agreement there is a link between the two.
As an economic development specialist, it is your job to help improve the local economy and enhance the quality of life for all residents. That sounds like a daunting task, so how do you go about achieving that goal/mission? As in all work that gets accomplished by any organization, it takes collaboration and partnerships to achieve results. While it is my full-time job to help improve the local economy and enhance the quality of life for all Waupaca County residents, there are numerous individuals/groups/organizations that either directly or indirectly have the same goal. When I accepted this job almost 18 years ago, I knew that as the only employee of the corporation, I would need to leverage the efforts and work of others if I wanted to have an impact.
What are the positives for businesses located in Waupaca? There are numerous assets that Waupaca County businesses have at their disposal. Of course, most of the assets are not unique to our county, but some of the most important ones are a direct result of being in Wisconsin and the Midwest. Whether it is the high-quality infrastructure they rely on to move their goods and services, or the great educational system that prepares and trains very productive employees, our businesses tend to stay here once they get established. The beauty of the area and the family-centered pace of life also help businesses retain/attract employees.
What is the biggest challenge facing local businesses? Unquestionably, the biggest challenge facing local businesses is attracting and retaining high-quality employees. Again, this challenge is not unique to businesses located in Waupaca County. The entire U.S., like much of the world, is experiencing a workforce crisis based on demographics and lifestyle changes. The foundation of this crisis began with the baby and economic boom of post-World War II. In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Immigration Debate Misses Economic Reality,” the author points out that for the first time in U.S. history there are more job openings than people out of work. In addition, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that American women are having children at the lowest rate on record (over a hundred years). Many U.S. demographers believe that people over 65 will outnumber people under 18 within 30 years, a historic crossing of demographic lines.
How can businesses respond to that? It is not going to be easy. The wild card in all of this is automation. Larger businesses will have more resources to keep their businesses going and maintain their share of the marketplace. Smaller businesses will be hit the hardest. These businesses need to focus on keeping their most productive people in their business. As an employer, you can do what you can to upscale their skills so they stay with you.
What are some things that the WCEDC does that people do not realize? Representing Waupaca County’s economic/community development interests at the regional, state and federal levels is one of the key things that WCEDC does that people probably are not aware of. This allows Waupaca County to stay connected to the relevant resources that are available and allows WCEDC to bring some of those resources into Waupaca County via grant applications, relationships and networks. Another WCEDC work program that people may not be aware of is related to marketing. The Waupaca County Marketing Cooperative was developed with the help of a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and is now financially supported by Waupaca County and eight of its municipalities, as well as over 40 local businesses. Essentially, the Marketing Cooperative is a social media branding and awareness campaign aimed at visitors, residents and potential employees.
You sometimes work with businesses interested in relocating to the region. How do you describe Waupaca to them? This rarely happens, but the Marketing Cooperative is really the tool that we have created to try and get more businesses and individuals interested in Waupaca County, which hopefully spurs more businesses and individuals to contact me directly.