Wisconsin unemployment rate ninth lowest in U.S., but officials are keeping an eye on vaccinations and worker shortage

Ricardo Torres
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Devonte Cunningham walked out of Wisconsin State Fair Park a happy man Friday after being hired for his second part-time job.  

Cunningham recently landed a part-time job at a grocery store, and after a successful interview at a job fair, he will join a crew to clean and sanitize the State Fair Park buildings before, during and after events.  

It's been a difficult several months for Cunningham, who was out of work and called job hunting during the pandemic "very, very, very stressful.”

“With coronavirus, everybody closed, Jesus, I’m glad I got these two jobs. I thank God for that," he said.

An increasing number of workers like Cunningham are finding new opportunities as the economy begins to open up. Experts are seeing hopeful signs about the immediate economic future in Wisconsin.

April Walton, right, janitorial program manager for Wisconsin State Fair Park, escorts a job candidate to the next station after interviewing him at a job fair Friday. The park has immediate openings for cleaning staff for the upcoming events season.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin has the ninth-lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the country at 3.8%, following neighbor Iowa, which is at 3.6%. 

“The recovery happened very quickly and it turned around very quickly,” said Dennis Winters, chief economist for the state Department of Workforce Development. “We’re more optimistic than we have been in a long time.” 

Across the country, the recovery seems to be accelerating. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that unemployment declined slightly to 6% in March and the economy added 916,000 jobs. That was the sharpest increase in hiring since August, driven by substantial gains at restaurants and bars, as well as construction and education.

In Wisconsin, more people who are able to work are finding work, Winters said, citing the state's labor force participation rate. That figure, which accounts for individuals 16 years old or older who are working or on unemployment, is currently 65.6%, compared with the national rate of 61.5%.

“We have one of the highest labor force participation rates in the country,” Winters said. “That means we’ve got more of our people in the labor force actually on the job. We see that particularly among youth and among females in our workforce.” 

Jeffrey Kot also got a job at Wisconsin State Fair Park in the facilities department. Kot has been retired since October 2019 but wanted some additional income.  

Jeffrey Kot of Milwaukee talks about applying for a job at Wisconsin State Fair Park on Friday.

“I’m an old man, but I got a couple miles left, I’ll show these kids, I’m tellin' ya,” Kot said with a smile. “I’m going to school them.” 

Because of the pandemic, Kot didn’t feel comfortable going out of his home to try to get a job and checked out Indeed.com to see what was available.  

Kot said he did not like searching for jobs online and favors an in-person process like at State Fair Park.  

“I got some responses back and they’re not from humans, I can tell that a robot selected me,” Kot said. “I don’t appreciate that. That’s why I like this situation. You can tell someone’s personality.”  

Not a universal recovery

However, the recovery in Wisconsin has not been universal, and most regions have seen slight increases in unemployment. In the Milwaukee-West Allis area, unemployment grew from 5% in January to 5.2% in February. Last year, before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was 3% in the Milwaukee-West Allis area.

Framed between cleaning equipment,  Christian Kowieski, right, chief operating officer, interviews Jeffrey Kot at Wisconsin State Fair Park on Friday. The park has immediate openings for cleaning staff for the upcoming events season.

Statewide, the Department of Workforce Development reported that 70 of the state's 72 counties, including 34 cities, saw an increase in the unemployment rate. 

State officials are optimistic that economic growth will continue as more residents are vaccinated.

“It’s kind of a race right now between fiscal health and the pace of vaccination,” Winters said. “So once we get enough people vaccinated and they build enough confidence in themselves that they can go out and congregate again ... I think that will turn around fairly quickly.” 

Wisconsin's jobless rate was 3 percent in November.

But having people vaccinated doesn’t guarantee the local economy is going to continue to trend up. There could be permanent changes in how people spend their money tied to their year of enduring the pandemic.

“What we don’t know at this point is how much of people's new modus operandi, if you will, has changed that stick,” Winters said. “How many people will be working from home? How many people will be changing their entertainment and lifestyles? It’s too early to tell.” 

Worker shortage

Another challenge is that businesses looking to hire new workers might struggle to find qualified employees.  

Winters said he’s heard of inventory piling up because businesses are having trouble finding enough truck drivers to move the products.  

“We hear that all the time from businesses, even from the extent that they’ve had to turn away orders ... because they don’t have the capacity to produce the goods for which they had demand for or sold,” Winters said. “And that goes up and down the supply chain. So if one of your suppliers can’t find enough talent, you can’t make the parts in your factory and if trucking is a problem, you can’t get the parts into your factory.” 

The trends are encouraging, but not everyone is feeling the benefits of the recovery, said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

“Wisconsin has the challenge that we still have thousands of workers on the sidelines who may not be captured by these numbers, particularly from sectors hard hit by the pandemic, such as restaurants and lodging businesses,” Hughes said in a statement.

“Meanwhile, access to a skilled workforce continues to be one of the most important issues for our businesses, particularly in manufacturing. WEDC’s aim is not just to restore our state’s economy to where it was before the pandemic but to build it back stronger, drawing workers who are on the sidelines because of lack of child care, transportation or skills into the workforce, and making sure that our businesses have the ability to grow and expand in Wisconsin.” 

There is an increase in job openings from last year, but in some areas there may be a skills gap, said Susan Koehn, vice president of talent and industry partnerships at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

“Businesses that are picking up hiring are experiencing the same shortages that they saw before the pandemic,” Koehn said. “The same skills gaps or the workforce gaps that existed before the pandemic are probably going to be with us.” 

Some might be surprised by the job that is currently in the highest demand.  

“The biggest one, by a mile, is heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, second is registered nurses,” Koehn said. “Unfortunately, those two roles, you can’t just decide ‘I’m going to apply for that today,’ because both of them involve licensing, training, education.” 

For industries like hospitality or food service, workers likely have skills that can be applied in other areas like sales or customer service, Koehn said.  

“These pathways exist, but there’s a lack of awareness, I think, on the part of job seekers, that their skills are already there,” Koehn said. “They can already qualify for those roles. People get into their lane or their box and they don’t see that their skills are transferable across industries.” 

New Virtual Career Center

Barb LaMue, executive director of the New North, which helps serve the business interests of northeast Wisconsin, agrees Wisconsin is recovering from the recession better than a lot of states in part because of its strong manufacturing industry. 

“Clearly the pandemic has affected that industry as well, they’ve recovered much quicker,” LaMue said. “They didn’t shut down at all during the pandemic and many of them actually, because of moving to (making) PPE, actually saw an uptick in their employment goals.” 

But like the rest of the state, and country, workers in industries like restaurants and hospitality are trying to find new employment if they can’t go back to their previous workplace.  

Through a partnership with Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning and Gener8tor, the New North helped train people in skills like customer service and sales in two cohorts to help them get jobs,  LaMue said.  

“We knew those are skills that are very transferable and you need those types of credentials for really any jobs that are out there,” LaMue said, adding the third cohort is about IT administration and IT help desk skills.

“The ultimate goal is that these individuals have jobs that are waiting for them upon completion of the training and we’re certainly going to look at how we can do more of that.” 

Also to help those who are seeking a job, the Department of Workforce Development has partnered with Google Cloud to launch a Virtual Career Center. 

Once up and running, the career center will allow job seekers to use artificial intelligence along with virtual meetings to find openings.  

Robert Cherry, deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, said the nearly $3 million development builds from the current Job Center of Wisconsin.  

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Center in Pewaukee (shown) is closed on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 along with all other (DWD) Job Centers in the state, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re giving job seekers remote access, chatbot, you can set up times and appointments and meet virtually with career counselors. It’s real-time assistance,” Cherry said.  

Over the last 12 months, Cherry said the DWD had to shut down physical job centers and the department had to find a way to offer services to those that needed them.  

“There was definitely, with the pandemic, barriers to people accessing job centers the same way and we want to make sure we’re never in that situation again,” Cherry said. “But what we learned through the pandemic is people are very technology savvy. Through virtual platforms, they’re able to meet, do job interviews, do training and things like that. This will allow us to also help us better connect to people in that way.” 

The Virtual Career Center plans to be ready for users later this year.  

“Our state is doing a lot better than a lot of other states, but we’ve still been hit really hard in those congregational industries like hospitality, entertainment, things like that,” Cherry said.  

Cherry added employers continue to look for workers and “that’s where this website is extremely important.”  

“Many people who were in those industries are looking to retool and get skills to do other work right now,” Cherry said. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in folks moving into manufacturing, going out and getting trained in manufacturing, who lost jobs in other sectors.” 

USA Today contributed to this report.