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Working Within The Workforce Shortage

A Guest Column Offered by Rebekah Sweeney, WCMA Communications and Policy Manager

From dealing with government regulations, to accessing capital for investments, to navigating a global marketplace, it seems as though the concerns of a business owner – and cheesemakers, in particular – are without end.

But, the biggest headache for these entrepreneurs and craftsmen and women goes beyond bureaucracy and beyond the markets.

In a series of five listening sessions this summer with Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association members, we’ve discovered that – almost universally – the most pressing need in the industry today is for workers.  Members all across America’s Dairyland have described dramatic drop-offs in the number applicants for open positions and much greater competition with other industries for the shrinking applicant pool.

After the Great Recession, our industry’s workforce shortage may come as some surprise, but members’ anecdotes track with statewide statistics.  Currently, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate sits at 4.2 percent, a level that closely relates to nationwide numbers.

Across the Upper Midwest, there is even more reason for concern.  According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, “In the decade from 2010 to 2020, Wisconsin’s labor force is projected to reach a record 3.3 million individuals, but the increase will be only 101,000 workers, a 3.2 percent increase. By 2030, Wisconsin’s workforce growth rate is actually expected to turn negative. Even as Wisconsin’s population steadily grows, labor force growth will decrease in the future and eventually halt, perhaps even decline by 2030.”

Simply stated, the state’s aging population and smaller families mean our workforce shortage is only likely to increase in the years to come.  Understanding the limitations now and in the future, we must look for ways to successfully operate within them.

First, we know that cheesemakers must utilize the resources available to them through state and federal agencies.  If your company is not posting job listings on the Wisconsin Job Center website (www.jobcenterofwisconsin.com), it’s worth the effort.  More than 40,000 people are actively searching the site for open positions.  Also available through that website are wage comparisons that can help you determine whether the package you’re offering potential hires is truly competitive.  For example, a quick search shows that a food processing worker in Northwestern Wisconsin with some experience earns, on average, $18.27 an hour.

For more detailed wage and benefit comparisons, turn to your local Workforce Development Board.  Divided into 11 regions, the network of Wisconsin Workforce Development Boards can offer industry-specific information and may also be able to connect you with a pool of good candidates.  To find out which board serves you, visit www.wwda.org.

Workforce development officials, together with the business community, are coming up with new ways to attract employees.  Consider, for instance, the Trade Up campaign in South Central Wisconsin which is designed to encourage young workers to pursue construction, carpentry, or plumbing as career paths.  Banners that detail the wages, environment, benefits, and advancement opportunities are placed in high school cafeterias and classrooms, guidance counselors are given good information to pass to students, and students are periodically bussed to job sites, so they can see for themselves what working in the field means.  Cheesemakers could do the same.

Finally, through WCMA listening sessions, we’ve learned that some members are getting creative on their own, to make their businesses more attractive workplaces.  Some are focused on breaking down barriers to employment, offering transportation to and from work or gas vouchers.  Others are setting up significant professional development programs, investing in employees’ ongoing education as a way to encourage a continued commitment to the company.  Others, still, are directing managers to be more empathetic to employees’ personal issues and make the workplace a friendlier place to be.

While there is no quick fix to a worker shortage, there are resources and strategies you can employ to attract and retain employees to your plant – and the sooner you take action, the better.