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Business Columnist: Focus On Increasing High-Tech Manufacturing, Not Ending Additional Unemployment Benefits In Wisconsin

worker holding metal plate against manufacturing machinery
While Wisconsin ranks 8th in total manufacturing jobs in the United States, it ranks 35th in average manufacturing payroll.

You may have been noticing a lot of “help wanted” signs posted on businesses throughout the Milwaukee area and the state. Businesses throughout the country have reported having difficulties hiring people despite the high unemployment rate. In an effort to boost the number of workers, 25 states throughout the country have or will be ending the extra $300 federal unemployment payment. Republicans in Wisconsin’s Legislature introduced a bill last month to end the payment along other pandemic-related benefits.

READ: Wisconsin Legislature Votes To End Extra Unemployment

But are expanded unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic really to blame for the lack of people seeking work?

Kathleen Gallagher is the executive director of the 5 Lakes Institute and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist. She thinks the debate about an extra $300 is missing the point. Her recent column for the paper focuses on what she believes could make Wisconsin a higher-wage economy.

“Why don’t we think about the jobs people are going back to? Do we have the kind of jobs in our economy in Wisconsin that people aspire to?” she asks. “Maybe the argument isn’t really the $300 supplemental payment, maybe the argument is how can we take advantage of this moment and upgrade our economy in Wisconsin?”

Gallagher says instead of focusing on getting people back into service jobs, the focus should be about looking into the future and making sure that jobs in Wisconsin are geared towards products and experiences consumers are going to want in 10 years.

“It’s about what do people want tomorrow, and what are we making that they want tomorrow,” she says.

When Gallagher dug into the stats around manufacturing in the state, she found a disparity amongst how much the state is manufacturing and how much workers are making.

“We rank 8th for activity, and we rank 35th for manufacturing payroll with an average of around $56,000 per employee. But what that tells me is Wisconsin has become an increasingly low-tech manufacturing state,” she says.

Gallagher says Wisconsin should be investing in higher tech manufacturing to not only raise wages but to make sure manufacturing jobs stay relevant in the future. Some Wisconsinites may be weary of this idea after Foxconn was heralded as a high-tech manufacturer that would bring thousands of jobs to southeastern Wisconsin and has so far been a complete disaster, she says. But Gallagher says Foxconn shouldn’t scare people off from high-tech manufacturing, but instead focus on companies that don’t rely on other companies to sell their products.

“We brought in a company that's in this mix of high-tech equipment but they’re not a high profit margin, we can decide to make company. That’s their problem,” she says.

Gallagher points to states like Arizona and Nevada as examples of places that have attracted high-tech manufacturing and now rank above Wisconsin in manufacturing payroll, with Arizona ranked 7th in the United States. She says that decisions like attracting Foxconn were political decisions and instead Wisconsin should focus on finding people who have built and grown companies to find ways to grow the state’s economy.

“What we need to do is move forward and how are we going to move forward? Are we going to move forward with just those same people thinking about or are we going to pull in the people who understand growth?” Gallagher asks.

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
Kathleen Gallagher is the host of Midwest Moxie and previously the host of How Did You Do That?.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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