On the Sidelines

by | May 7, 2018 | Uncategorized

I’m frustrated talking about the Body Gap and its impending impact on our economy. Too many people fail to clearly see the magnitude of the issue and even experts continue to misapply Skills Gap solutions. We need more workers to keep the economy moving.

The recent unemployment statistics once again underline the fact that the Body Gap is upon us. The national unemployment rate fell below 4% while Wisconsin’s rate remains under 3%. Both statistics show we are at full employment. Again, we need more people to keep the economy growing at even a modest rate.

Many analysts looking deeper at the statistics see potential workers on the sidelines, not engaged in the workforce. The Workforce Participation Rate measures the number of adults actively working. These numbers suggest that we can pull enough people off the sidelines to meet future labor needs. Their arithmetic shows there are plenty of people available.

Well, the arithmetic may be right, but the equation is wrong.

The Wisconsin numbers are a good example. Wisconsin’s Workforce Participation Rate is at 68% – a number that looks low. In fact, it’s the fifth highest rate in the nation. The arithmetic is quite simple and tells us that 1.5 million adults are not in the workforce. It looks simple. Let’s put them to work. Problem solved!

Big problems are never that easy to address.

I’m fortunate that my job provides the opportunity to connect with experts in many different fields. Recently, Matt Kures, Community Development Specialist with the UW Extension, dropped by for a discussion about manufacturing and the Body Gap. Matt ran through the detail behind the participation rate numbers. The math shows that 1.5 million Wisconsin adults are not in the active workforce. That number includes all adults over the age of 16. That’s the arithmetic. Here are some key details that show how shaky the equation is:


Age Group Number Percentage Category
Over 65 776,623 49.9% “Retired”
55-64 257,593 16.6% “Almost Retired”
16-24 217,892 14.0% “Students”


If you exclude these numbers, there are 302,428 available workers on the sideline. Remember that number includes everyone – stay-at-home-parents, caregivers, individuals with disabilities – absolutely everyone, so the real number of available people is much smaller.

If you want to draw new workers from each of these age groups, they all pose unique challenges. Think about each category and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Why isn’t this particular group already part of the workforce?
  2. What actions might pull people from this group into the workforce?
  3. How likely is it that your plan will work?

See how tough it is – especially in a state with 2.9% unemployment?

Each situation requires clear, targeted solutions. These solutions tend to engage dozens, rather than thousands, of new workers. Very few actions can address the entire range of workforce participation issues. Here are three real-world examples illustrating that point:

  • A local company uses flexible schedules, unique work conditions, and pay systems that retain and attract older workers who would otherwise retire.
  • Employ Milwaukee targets new parolees with the highest chance of success and provides the training, counseling, and other support necessary to reintegrate these individuals back into the workforce.
  • Apricity in Neenah provides the training and support necessary for recovering addicts to rejoin the workforce.
    These are just three of the dozens of initiatives in motion throughout the state. Each works well, but only brings new people into the workforce a dozen or two at a time.

Building the workforce of the future is a complicated ordeal with no easy solutions. Success is critical for our future economic growth. “One sentence solutions” will not work in this environment. Successful solutions require a mindset change that opens up more possibilities and provides more freedom to take effective action. That mindset provides receptivity to MANY new ideas – even those beyond our world beliefs.

It’s a formidable challenge – but one that we can tackle together. All of us will make Wisconsin stronger than ever before!