Workforce Shortage Challenges Reemerge as Wisconsin Businesses Dig Out of the Pandemic

Mitchell Schmidt | Wisconsin State Journal

Wisconsin’s return to near pre-pandemic unemployment levels has brought with it the reemergence of one of the biggest challenges facing some of the state’s largest industries – a workforce shortage.

The need for workers in multiple sectors of the economy has Republicans and the state’s largest business lobby calling on the state to end its participation in enhanced federal pandemic unemployment benefits, which they say creates a disincentive to work.

Liberals point to long-term structural changes as an opportunity to provide higher wages, better benefits, more skills-based training and adequate childcare offerings – a need that was drastically amplified with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – as necessary to get more Wisconsinites into the workforce.

“There are structural factors in our society that have brought us to this point where we have high numbers of unemployed still, especially among low-skilled workers, and now we have a burgeoning demand for qualified workers,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Stephanie Bloomingdale said. “To now complain that unemployed workers are getting $300 extra to get us through the pandemic – it falls short.”

Some of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic include public-facing businesses like bars, restaurants, hotels and tourism. As more Wisconsinites receive vaccines and local public health restrictions relax, many of those businesses are looking to build back to pre-pandemic staffing levels.

“I think many owners are bending over backwards to find the staff that they need,” said Bill Elliott, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association.

In February, the American Hotel and Lodging Association estimated Wisconsin lost more than 11,000 direct hotel jobs last year. The association expects the state to lose about another 9,300 such jobs this year.

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said 10% of Wisconsin restaurants have already shuttered their doors because of the pandemic and another 20-30% are at risk of closing.

Hillmer said restaurant owners across the state are feeling additional pressure to build up their staff, despite some lingering public health orders limiting venue capacity, with hopes of a surge in business this summer.

“There are no easy solutions on the horizon,” Hillmer said.

In Dane County alone, the hospitality industry fell from more than 22,000 employees to a little over 15,000 last year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. About 2,000 of the jobs lost last year were located in Downtown Madison, representing 44% of the Downtown hospitality workforce.

Other sectors of the economy, including manufacturers and motor carriers, faced a workforce shortage before the pandemic hit.

With hopes of drawing talent amid a tight labor market, some businesses have turned to wage increases, sign-on bonuses and other incentives to meet staffing demands.

“The list just goes on and on,” said Seth Lentz, CEO of the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.

“Companies are looking for talent and if somebody wants a career, they’re prepared to capitalize on the talent and support individuals in developing their skills and talent and pursuing careers.”

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