The landscape of economic development has made a dramatic change in the past few years.

No longer can developers take the “build it and they will come” approach when it comes to industrial or commercial development. The shortage in today’s economy is not in land but in skilled workers.

The 7 Rivers Alliance response is to get WISE, also known as the Workforce Innovation for a Stronger Economy.

In 2015, the alliance received strong and clear direction from our annual survey of the region’s businesses when 75 percent of the respondents across 14 counties in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa identified a need for skilled workers. Something had to be done to address the workforce challenges facing employers and to ensure continued growth and prosperity across the region.

The result is the WISE Plan, the culmination of a nearly year-long effort to understand the workforce preparation, retention and recruitment challenges faced by our businesses and communities.

The 7 Rivers Alliance secured $200,000 in funding through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and Alliant Energy. We worked with the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, the University of Northern Iowa’s Institute for Decision Making, Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission and First Children’s Finance.

With a steering committee led by La Crosse Tribune executive editor Rusty Cunningham, we embarked on a series of small group meetings and focus group discussions across the region. We engaged representatives from major regional employers and industries, economic development, workforce development, K-12 education leaders, higher education and other stakeholders to start building a foundation of understanding the workforce challenges.

This was followed by a series of workgroup sessions and focus group meetings followed by a workforce summit. Input from hundreds of stakeholders in the region led to the development of challenges and strategies and the WISE Plan was launched in November.

The workforce challenge is daunting. Based upon our analysis, due to out-migration and retirements, the region is expected to lose a net of 228 workers during the next 10 years. That flat labor force will do nothing to address the projections that 15,321 net new jobs will be created during the same time.

That means that the 7 Rivers Region needs to retain or attract 1,500 to 2,000 more workers each year during the next decade just to keep pace.

Certainly this is not a unique challenge to our region. The states of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota and much of the country face the same problem. There are simply not enough new workers to replace the retiring Baby Boomers. And without a massive influx of immigrants, we’re all fighting for the same labor force.

But we also have advantages — such as quality of life, tremendous recreational opportunities, excellent schools and safe communities.

In addition to focusing on talent preparation, talent retention and talent recruitment, the WISE Plan identifies barriers related to housing, transportation and childcare as critical workforce impediments.

Other challenges include:

  • Misperceptions about the region’s employment opportunities
  • A mismatch of skills between what is being produced by the region’s post-secondary institutions and the needs of local employers
  • A lack of diversity in the region
  • Out-migration and out-commuting
  • Childcare options and affordability
  • Attracting people to the area
  • Competition from nearby employment centers.

The WISE Plan addresses these challenges through a series of strategies and actions to achieve these goals. Here are a few:

  • Increase student and worker employability skills
  • Educate students, educators, parents and other community members about the educational requirements for high-paying, in-demand careers
  • Promote the 7 Rivers Region as a great place to live and work
  • Foster more inclusiveness in the region to better attract minorities
  • Ensure the availability of affordable housing
  • Help companies prepare for pending retirements
  • Develop public-private partnerships to increase childcare facility capacity and address affordability
  • Improve connections and relationships between high school and college students with regional employers and local communities
  • Improve regional transportation.

The key to making this happen is a strong synergy between business and organizations to tackle these issues. The 7 Rivers Alliance cannot accomplish this by ourselves. To move the dial we need our diverse set of partners to work together on our shared vision and shared goals.

Our implementation teams are just getting to work. Additional input or help is welcome. If you’d like to know more about the WISE Plan, you can read the entire report online at www.7riversalliance.org/wise-project/.

Chris Hardie is CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance and former executive editor of the La Crosse Tribune.

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