When it comes to work, La Crosse has undergone a seismic shift in the past two decades.
In 1991, about one out of every five jobs in the county was tied to manufacturing. Now it’s closer to one in 10, as manufacturing has skidded to third place behind the rapidly expanding field of health care.
But even as manufacturing has waned the past two decades, health care has surged, adding nearly four jobs for every one lost in manufacturing.
Though the strongest growing industry nationwide, health care has come to dominate the La Crosse labor market, now accounting for almost one in every four jobs — 23 percent of the county’s workforce, compared to about 15 percent of the jobs at the state and federal level.
It’s one reason La Crosse consistently has the second-lowest unemployment rate in Wisconsin, said Bill Brockmiller, a labor market analyst with the Department of Workforce Development: Health care is far more resistant to economic fluctuations than retail or manufacturing.
But don’t let the industry numbers fool you. We’re not all doctors, nurses or machinists.
Just as at the national level, ours is a service-based economy. Retail clerk is the most common job in the La Crosse metro area, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Burger flippers, office clerks and cashiers round out the top five.
And three of those five jobs pay less than $20,000 a year on average.
However, thanks to the dominant health care industry, registered nurse
is the second most common occupation in the county, comprising about 3.5 percent of the labor force, compared to just 2 percent at the national level.
Locally, health care overtook manufacturing for good in 1999, when manufacturing entered a three-year slide punctuated by layoffs at Trane Co. and the closing of plants such as the Heilman Brewery and LaCrosse Footwear.
The most recent recession saw manufacturing fall to third place, behind retail trade, in 2009.
Wisconsin still has one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing jobs in the nation — running a close second to Indiana. In both states, about one in every five jobs is related to manufacturing.
But as nationwide, manufacturing employment has been in decline since 1979, even as output has increased, thanks to outsourcing, efficiency and automation.
Once upon a time, laid off employees were called back when demand picked up. Not so anymore.
“Every recession brings with it a hit to manufacturing,” Brockmiller said.
Since 1998, La Crosse County has lost nearly 3,300 manufacturing jobs, which Brockmiller said reflects a general erosion in low-skilled manufacturing employment.
“What we’ve seen within manufacturing over the last 20 years, the jobs that have survived … those aren’t the same jobs,” Brockmiller said. “The jobs that remain take more skills.”
Still, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse economist TJ Brooks cautions against what economists call the “Luddite fallacy” — that machines will eventually take away our jobs.
The term comes from a movement during the industrial revolution of the 1800s, when textile workers railed against automated machines created to do their work.
While technological innovation does displace workers in the short term, it doesn’t kill jobs; it shifts them.
“They relieve you from the need to do a menial task,” Brooks said. “They free you up to do something else.”
So, with a new tractor, the farmer who cultivated 40 acres now farms 200 acres. And the four neighboring farmers find work selling tractors, repairing them or delivering fuel.
The problem is the time it takes for workers to learn new skills and for demand to develop.
“In this recovery we’ve been slow to do that,” Brooks said.
Another problem: automation has disproportionately hit the middle of the wage scale.
“We’ve added a lot of jobs at the low end and high end,” Brooks said. “But not a lot of jobs in the middle.”
The outlook for 2020 isn’t much better.
Some of the fastest-growing occupational groups — including food prep, personal care and retail sales — are also among the lowest paying.
But there is good news for La Crosse in the long-term occupational outlook, which predicts 19 percent growth during this decade for healthcare practitioners, who have a median income of about $55,000, and nearly 16 percent growth in business and financial operations, with a median income close to $50,000.
And just because an occupation is shrinking doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs.
Brockmiller points to the example of mail carriers, whose ranks are expected to shrink by more than 800 by 2020, according to the state’s projections. Yet there are expected to be some 2,240 openings thanks largely to retirements.
So what does all this mean for future workers?
Number one, said Brooks, “Finish school.”
While only two of the 10 occupations with the largest growth will require anything more than a high school degree, those generally aren’t good-paying jobs.
Brooks points to advice from Hal Varian, the chief economist for Google, who said the key to job security is the ability to provide a scarce service to something ubiquitous and cheap.
Data is ubiquitous these days, but the skills to understand it are not. Fill that niche, and you’re in demand.
But don’t get complacent. In a constantly shifting economy, the key will be adaptability, so be prepared to keep learning.