New study of Wisconsin’s labor force highlights important role of education

Researchers identify ways current workforce trends affect state’s future

Contact Tessa Conroy, 608-265-4327,

Wisconsin’s education pipeline plays an essential role in the state’s overall economy, according to a new study released by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Extension Center for Community and Economic Development and University of Wisconsin-Madison Dept. of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Shifting Wisconsin Labor Resources: A Review of Educational Attainment by Tessa Conroy, Matt Kures and Steven Deller, focuses on the impact of education on the workforce and the state’s business climate.

“Educated workers are essential to a future with competitive wages, innovative industry and entrepreneurial activity,” according to the report’s authors. “The university and technical college system, combined with low rates of workers leaving, suggest that homegrown, talented workers could be the key to economic growth in Wisconsin.”

However, several key study indicators suggest that the education pipeline in Wisconsin could be improved.

Low numbers of college, technical school graduates

While Wisconsin has a strong high school graduation rate, only 29 percent of the population age 25 and over has a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 32.5 percent for the U.S.

Student debt was considered as a reason for the state’s average college enrollment and relatively low graduation rates. While a majority of students take out loans for college, the average debt in Wisconsin ($29,000) is smaller than that of students in nearby states.

The study suggests that post high-school education and training may be underused. This was especially true for young men, who have fallen behind women in attaining bachelor’s degrees in nearly every Wisconsin county, reversing trends of past generations.

Given the proven connection between college degrees and entrepreneurship, the study suggests that women-owned businesses should be at the forefront of the state’s economic growth and development policies.

“Brain drain” vs. “brain gain”

The pool of educated people in the state is made up of Wisconsin college graduates who stay in the state and educated workers who migrate in from other states.

The new study found that the majority of highly educated Wisconsin residents who attend college in the state tend to stay here. Further, Wisconsin has a relatively low rate of out-migration among all states, suggesting that concern about “brain drain”—the loss of educated workers to other states—is somewhat misplaced.

The number of college-educated workers coming into the state, however, is especially low. Rather than “brain drain,” Wisconsin suffers from a lack of “brain gain” –the ability to attract educated workers from other states. Consequently, policies that focus on recruiting new residents may be an important component in growing the state’s pool of educated workers.

Current needs or future directions?

The types of jobs Wisconsin employers are offering are changing, along with the skills required to do them. Based on the state’s current economic environment, the study suggests that in the future, there will be a shortage of quality jobs needing a college degree or more—perhaps not enough for the state’s relatively small pool of highly skilled workers. This could result in more of the state’s college graduates seeking employment elsewhere.

The growing segment of low-skill positions in Wisconsin that require a high school diploma or less will also face challenges. According to the report: “While job growth is generally good for an economy, job quality is also an important component of economic development. Often low-skill jobs don’t feature wages, benefits and stability that are conducive to a higher quality of living.”

The study points out that large increases in lower-skill jobs could lead to a rise in Wisconsin’s “working poor.”

Overall, the researchers provide information for Wisconsin policymakers to consider changing the focus of the current educational pipeline to go beyond the demands of today’s industries and look to shape future industries.

The complete study and related articles are available at


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