Wisconsin was second in the nation in total job losses last month, a somewhat surprising development considering the state’s unemployment rate has reached its lowest level since November 2008.
Employers in Wisconsin shed an estimated 9,500 total public and private sector jobs in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported late last week.
Along with North Carolina (11,300 job losses) and Alaska (2,300 job losses), Wisconsin experienced a “statistically significant” decline in employment, according to a press release from the BLS.
The Wisconsin losses included an estimated 7,900 government jobs, 5,000 jobs in professional or business services and 2,200 in manufacturing.
Those losses were offset by gains of 900 jobs in construction, 700 in hospitality and 4,200 jobs in health care.
Still, experts caution that the figures released Thursday are the Current Employment Statistics (CES), an estimate based on monthly surveys of about 5 percent of employers. The figures are often revised in the following month as more data is analyzed.
The CES is not as accurate as the quarterly Census on Employment and Wages (CEW), which is based on actual hard jobs data but only released every three months.
The last CEW — which was released last week and garnered widespread media coverage — showed Wisconsin fifth in the nation in manufacturing jobs gains but also 35th among the states in total job growth in 2013.
“Yes, this tick down in February is a bad sign but the recovery in manufacturing has been one of the few good stories in the state,” says UW-Madison economist Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.
Robert Kraig of Citizen Action Wisconsin says the new figures suggest a continued trend toward fewer jobs in higher-paying sectors and increases in lower-paying positions.
“These new numbers mean there has been both a loss of jobs generally and also a shift toward poverty-wage jobs and away from middle class jobs,” he says.
Officials with the state Department of Workforce Development, which did not respond to a request for comment, did not mention the latest job losses in a press release Thursday. It focused on what the BLS called a “statistically significant” drop in the unemployment rate to 6.1 in February from 6.9 percent a year ago.
DWD secretary Reggie Newson also noted that Wisconsin has gained 30,000 jobs over the past 12 months, according to the CES estimates. He called the new figures “positive signs for our state's long-term growth."
Dresser of COWS agrees that the jobs picture in Wisconsin is improving but not fast enough to replace all the jobs lost during the recession. She says the state still has a "jobs deficit" of 126,000 — the number needed to replace those lost and account for population growth.
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“We are on roughly an upward trend in jobs,” says Dresser. “Not enough jobs, not fast enough growth and not every single month, but largely positive.”
In fact, the latest COWS analysis shows Wisconsin closing the gap with the national rate of growth.
Dane County is certainly doing well on both the job and wages front. It was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in wage growth over the past year in the latest CEW and Madison was called the No. 2 Best City for Jobs this week by ZipRecruiter, a national job search site.
Job creation will likely prove a central issue in the upcoming race for governor.
Incumbent Gov. Scott Walker has maintained that his policies of cutting taxes coupled with a more business friendly attitude in state government will boost the Wisconsin economy.
But after a campaign pledge to see 250,000 new private sector jobs created during his first term, Wisconsin has added only about 100,000 new jobs since Walker took office in January 2011.
The state now ranks 9th out of 10 Midwestern states in job growth under Walker.
Democratic challenger Mary Burke this week rolled out her own job creation plan based on investments in education and boosting entrepreneurs via expanded venture capital funds for new businesses.
At the same time, some have suggested that politicians have little impact on job growth one way or another. The state has also lagged on job creation for 15 years, notes the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
Some economic development experts have blamed Wisconsin for failing to transition from low-growth areas like agriculture and manufacturing into higher growth areas like information technology and clean energy.
Kraig of Citizen Action says it should come as no surprise that job growth has lagged over the past three years under Walker.
“Walker's austerity program is having a big negative impact, as is the lack of any strategy to invest in creating and maintaining family sustaining jobs,” he says.
A recent analysis produced by the Wisconsin State Journal shows the state was doing better on the jobs front under former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, than under the Republican Walker.