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Monday, June 11, 2012

Tom Still: Five bipartisan approaches to building a stronger Wisconsin economy

By Tom Still
Before the ballots were fully counted in Tuesday's recall election, Gov. Scott Walker was talking about bipartisanship. The same hopes were voiced by his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and key members of the Legislature.

After more than a year's worth of fractious politics, it remains to be seen if the state can pull together around common challenges and opportunities. It won't be easy, but neither is it impossible – especially if the agenda is focused and inclusive.

Here are five economic areas where Walker and the Legislature can help reinforce what should be an enduring Wisconsin brand: Innovation and leadership, even in divided times.

Meet workforce challenges across the education spectrum: While people still out of work might passionately disagree, Wisconsin has a shortage of workers in key areas. The often-cited example is welders, a symbol for an assortment of skilled manufacturing jobs, but it extends to workers in sectors as diverse as information technology, life sciences, health care, engineering and more.

In a state that is aging faster than the U.S. average, educating, attracting and retaining the right workforce is necessary. That begins at the K-12 level with stronger science, technology, engineering and math education (the so-called STEM disciplines) and extends to softer skills such as communication, working in teams and learning how to adapt in a rapidly changing world. Higher education was rarely mentioned during the campaign, but it must be front-and-center in any discussion about producing a world-class workforce.

Elevate Wisconsin's standing in a global economy: Exports from Wisconsin continue to climb in some of the state's bread-and-butter sectors. Manufacturing and agricultural exports rose sharply in 2011 and again in the first quarter of 2012. Foreign direct investment – or capital investments by companies from other nations in Wisconsin's economy – is also on the rise.

Wisconsin cannot hope to sell all of its high-quality products and services in the state, the region or even the nation. It must export and attract investment from abroad to grow. With the election behind him, Wisconsin's top salesman can now be Walker, who should be freed to build upon what is already a top-notch foundation for doing business overseas.

Create more companies at home: Wisconsin trailed the nation in producing startup companies in recent decades, but fresher reports indicate the state is climbing back into the game. While chasing out-of-state companies can be flashy, it's time-consuming and not nearly as efficient as planting seeds in your own backyard. One study after another has demonstrated that all net job creation in the United States is tied to growth by companies five years old or younger. As last week's Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in Milwaukee demonstrated, there are plenty of emerging companies looking for a spot in the garden. They have the ideas, the talent and the energy. All that's needed are the right growing conditions.

Encourage early stage and growth capital: Among those growing conditions are enough cash to bring startup companies from the idea to the growth stage. Even during the sharply divided session that preceded the recall election, Walker and the Legislature came close to agreeing upon an approach that would have seeded more angel and venture capital. A combination of the best Republican and Democratic ideas already on the table could put Wisconsin in position to build more homegrown funds and networks – and to attract money from outside its borders.

Wisconsin is doing a solid job of putting its own private equity to work; it should now do more to leverage OPM – other people's money.

Build the right infrastructure: Roads, bridges, power lines and other traditional public works are part of the answer, of course, but so is a telecommunications system that can facilitate high-end research as well as electronic commerce in all corners of the state. Wisconsin needs to pull together the best and brightest minds in information technology to develop a plan that will meet its needs to efficiently transmit the gigabytes of data that define today's digital world.

That means fostering better broadband connections, but it also involves addressing the need for shared high-end computing platforms, adequate data storage, enhanced cybersecurity and more.

Wisconsin has just emerged from a bruising election. The combatants can choose to remain in their corners, where little or nothing will be done, or shake hands and roll up their sleeves. While wounds don't heal overnight, working on common economic goals can start the process.

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


Comments: 2

At June 11, 2012 at 10:49 AM, Blogger Solomon Kleinsmith said...

It's a shame that these sorts of things aren't the priority all of the time for politicians. They're too busy picking fights rather than focusing on being the catalyst for growth our country needs. Just more proof that the two major parties care more about power than they do about the rest of us.

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

At June 15, 2012 at 2:31 PM, Blogger jimspice said...

How many bills in the last session addressed these concerns? How many actually moved backwards? Particularly on education?


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