• WisBusiness

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is the worst over for Milwaukee? Some economic rankings suggest that’s true

By Tom Still
Is the Milwaukee area economy finally bouncing back?

If you’re one of the 60,000 or so people in Wisconsin’s largest metro region who are still looking for a job, the answer is probably still a resounding “No!” When you’re out of work, after all, the unemployment rate so far as you’re concerned is 100 percent.

But if you’re among the people rejoining the job market in Milwaukee, or among the employers who are once again looking for talent, there are some encouraging signs of recovery. Rankings by economic “think tanks,” business publications or industry analysts are typically snapshots in time, but when a collection of reports reach a similar conclusion, a more complete picture can emerge.

Here’s a glimpse at recent reports that would indicate Milwaukee may be turning the corner, not only in terms of its recovery from the Great Recession, but from a much longer period when its growth didn’t come close to matching national and world performance.

The job search engine Juju.com recently placed Milwaukee as 10th best among on its “Job Search Difficulty Index,” a monthly report that weighs populations of major cities and divides the number of unemployed workers by the number of job postings in Juju’s job index. Milwaukee, with an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, showed 2.40 jobless people per advertised job. Milwaukee was sandwiched between Cleveland, Ohio, at 11th and Denver, Colo., at ninth.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Washington, D.C., was ranked as the easiest city in which to find a job. That’s not just because Uncle Sam is the leading employer. Washington is also one of the nation’s most vibrant tech-based economies. Other cities with established or emerging tech-based economies were not far behind in the index: San Jose, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; Austin, Texas; and Salt Lake City, Utah, are examples.

Portfolio.com, another online source that often focuses on technology development and entrepreneurship, this month gave Milwaukee some credit for academic “smarts” in its survey of educational attainment in the nation’s 200 largest markets. Milwaukee ranked 66th best on that list, which assigns point values to five rungs on the educational ladder – from high-school dropouts to holders of advanced degrees. The score for a given market depended on the percentage of adult residents (25 or older) on each rung. The higher the score, the stronger a market’s collective brainpower.

Other cities in Milwaukee’s rankings “neighborhood” included St. Louis, Mo.; Salt Lake City; Sacramento, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M. Madison ranked ninth highest on the list.

Why is the “brainpower” index important? Study after study shows that people earn more as they complete higher levels of education. The U.S. Census Bureau reports a worker with an advanced degree will earn 31 percent more than a colleague with a bachelor’s degree and 128 percent more than somebody who never went beyond high school.

Perhaps the most telling report is from the Brookings Institution, which this month released its Global Metro Monitor to chart economic progress in the world’s 150 largest metropolitan areas. That study revealed Milwaukee wasn’t doing very well during a period when other cities were moving ahead – 1997 to 2007 – but has lately gained momentum.

Milwaukee ranked near the bottom (141st) during a period when other regions were zooming ahead, perhaps in part because it was so strongly linked to a traditional manufacturing economy already in decline. As a result, it actually moved up in Brookings’ rankings during the recession (135th) – in part because much of the economic damage had already taken place – and has since moved up to 83rd in its “recovery” ratings.

While that’s not good enough to place Milwaukee among those cities Brookings described as being in “full recovery” – Minneapolis, Minn.; San Antonio and Austin, Texas; St. Louis and Detroit, Mich. – it’s in a class with emerging tech centers Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And it’s not Las Vegas or Buffalo, which Brookings described as “still in decline.”

Something’s obviously clicking in Milwaukee. The region’s manufacturing economy has transformed itself through technology and other efficiencies, start-up companies are beginning to gain traction with the help of investors, an entrepreneurial ecosystem has emerged and the city’s image has become younger and more energetic. As policymakers consider ways to revive the Wisconsin economy, one answer in Milwaukee and elsewhere should be: Don’t fix what’s already starting to work.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


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