Running on empty

New North seeks to fill talent pipeline to fuel regional economy

Posted on Jan 2, 2017 :: Up Front
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

BUSINESSES IN THE NEW NORTH region have recovered job counts to pre-recession rates and made gains in average quarterly wages. The participation rate in the labor market is strong in both the state and region, Jerry Murphy, executive director of the New North, says.

While the employment numbers are an indicator of economic growth, they carry a downside, Murphy told attendees at the New North Summit, which drew a crowd of more than 600.

“It’s wonderful to have really robust unemployment numbers, but this is also demonstrating that we may be approaching a point that we’re simply running out of available workforce,” Murphy said in his opening address.

With an aging workforce, it’s vital for companies to begin devising strategies for addressing the shortage now. Business, community and education leaders gathered to do just that at the New North’s annual summit at the KI Convention Center.

With a theme of Talent Triathlon and a focus on the three legs of attracting, retaining and developing talent, it was fitting for Olympic bronze medalist wrestler and Freedom native Garrett Lowney to kick off the event.

“I’ve seen a lot of great successes and epic failures when it comes to talent recruiting,” says Lowney, now director of product strategies for Schreiber Foods.

In the quest to move toward more success, he urged business leaders to look at whether their companies and organizations are creating the proper culture for attracting talent.

“We are clearly in a race for talent,” says Kathi Seifert, co-chair of New North, Inc. “We all have to work together.”

Seifert took the opportunity at the event to introduce her successor. Vicki Updike, vice president at Bergstrom Automotive, will take over as co-chair of the organization. In addition, Kim Iversen, formerly of Kimberly-Clark, was announced as director of the Northeast Wisconsin IT Alliance.

A trio of business leaders presented ED Talks, styled after TED Talks, focusing on how their organizations address talent needs.

Sharon Hulce, president of Employment Resource Group, made the crowd laugh and then think after sharing a tongue-in-cheek video skewering Wisconsin stereotypes that perpetuate the idea the state is only about beer, cheese and cows. We need to dispel these myths, she says, and use our great storytelling abilities to share all that makes our region special.

Engaging the best and the brightest is what drives revenues, Hulce says. Times have changed, and today’s prospective employees want something more than just a great, safe community. “They want a purpose; they want a mission; they want a cause.”

Hulce cited Oshkosh Corp. as a great example of this. The company takes pride in spreading the message that it’s an honor to protect those who serve us.

Craig Dickman, founder and chief innovation officer of Breakthrough Fuel, advocated for creating an environment that helps attract the best talent.

Dickman invoked an astronomy metaphor in talking about addressing talent needs. “The world is changing, and we’ve got to find ways to create more gravity to compete on the edges.”

Many in today’s society have reservations about millennials, Dickman says. The age group, however, makes up more than 75 percent of his staff. “I suggest that you find ways to really recognize the great potential that exists with today’s workforce.”

Dickman’s company takes an unconventional approach, eschewing organization charts and forgoing a human resources department. More than 30 percent of his workforce joined the company when there was no job opening. “We didn’t know we were looking for it, but then we met somebody who we saw had incredible talents, who fit our culture, who we knew could make us better.”

This message resonated with Tara Brzozowski, director of public relations for Element, a web development and advertising agency. She believes that job seekers’ wants and needs are changing and that companies aren’t changing quickly enough. “We need to be thinking outside the box.”

Wilson Jones, president and CEO of Oshkosh Corp., identified three key principles his company tries to follow to attract and retain its talent. A company needs to clearly define its purpose, provide caring, genuine leadership and strive to understand the state of its culture.

“Career development and learning are almost two times more important than compensation, benefits and work environment,” Jones says. “It’s vital to find ways to engage employees.”

In addition to the ED Talks, a panel of education leaders discussed how their institutions are tackling the talent crunch.

Greg Hartjes, principal of Appleton West High School, discussed the increasing number of dual enrollment credits students can pursue through Fox Valley Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Studies have shown that when high school students are enrolled in college-level courses, they are more likely to attend and succeed in college, says Hartjes, whose school also houses Appleton Technical Academy, a charter school dedicated to modern advanced manufacturing.

UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Dr. Susan May, president of FVTC, discussed the ways in which their institutions partner with employers to fill workforce needs. For example, FVTC answered the call for help and worked with companies like Sargento and Waupaca Foundry to retrain existing employees as maintenance technicians.

Leavitt cited the ways UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay have responded to industry pleas to add more engineering programs in the region.

The day culminated in breakout sessions for the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, the Society of Human Resource Management and Women in Technology.

WIT’s Adrienne Hartman, director of e-commerce and customer insights for J.J. Keller & Associates, says the technology gap in Northeast Wisconsin is real and getting worse. In the coming years, information technology jobs will be well-paying and plentiful, with a projected 1.4 million jobs available by 2020, Hartman says. 

“U.S. graduates are on track to fill only 29 percent of those jobs, and women are on track to fill just 3 percent of those jobs,” Hartman says. “It’s a serious problem that we’re facing.”