Tech Hub Dreams For Milwaukee Include Call For Diversity

Sep 10, 2018

In recent years, a number of organizations that promote business growth have set their sights on the high-tech sector and start-up firms that take innovative ideas to market.

Some believe Milwaukee could become a technology center. In fact, local business groups estimate 76,000 jobs in the region now qualify for the tech category.

But Northwestern Mutual Chairman and CEO John Schlifske says that's not enough. He told the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) on Monday that the need for information technology workers, and others in related fields, continues to grow, including at his company.

"You know, if you go back 10 years ago, it was lawyers, actuaries, investment professionals. Now, over half the jobs we're filling are tech jobs. And that's not just at Northwestern Mutual, that's across all companies, all industries," he says.

Schlifske says the Milwaukee region may not succeed in filling all the high-tech openings because many other cities are competing for the same talent.

Top employers in the seven county Milwaukee region captured a baseline snapshot of tech talent and its economic impact. (Click to enlarge)
Credit Milwaukee's Tech Talent Impact Study

Cynthia LaConte, CEO of the longtime Milwaukee firm The Dohmen Co., supports the growth of the high-tech sector. But she says so far, the industry isn't very diverse.

"The reality for technology — and this isn't Milwaukee-specific, this is across the board — is that it is 84 percent dominated by white males. What we need in technology is to broaden our horizon, " LaConte told the GMC.

Former State of Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Cory Nettles agrees.

Nettles now runs the Milwaukee investment firm Generation Growth Capital. He says many of the needed tech workers and much of the needed diversity could come from local schools and universities. But he says too many people sit on the sidelines or leave the area, because they don't see opportunity.

"I think there are a lot of young people. I think there are a lot of diverse people, ethnic minorities in particular, who really feel that this is an old, white, male, Germanic kind of society. And, either you don't belong, or you have to wait your turn 20 years later, " Nettles says.

Yet, Nettles remains optimistic about job growth in the tech sector and greater diversity, noting the GMC and other groups have some training programs underway.

He urges Milwaukee to focus on the tech areas it does best, whether that be in advanced manufacturing, water technology or healthcare information.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.