The Milwaukee Area’s Future Workforce

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This post is part 3 of a 3-part series based on data originally presented at the first Milwaukee Area Project conference. Part 1, overviews trends in population, employment, and wages since 1990. Part 2, on commuting and migrating in the Milwaukee area is available here.

The Milwaukee region’s economy has undergone major shifts in the past quarter century. In the graph above, nearly all non-farm jobs in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties are grouped into one of the nine displayed “supersectors”. This data is gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of its Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW). The QCEW is a particularly good measure of labor trends because it is not simply a survey; it includes all businesses that participate in the federally mandated state unemployment insurance systems.

Education and health is now the largest supersector—having enjoyed decades of nearly unbroken growth. Recessions have had little effect on its growth so far. Trade and transportation is second. This supersector closely mirrors the fortunes of the manufacturing industry, albeit with less extreme declines. Manufacturing jobs fell dramatically during the 2000s and again during the Great Recession. Since then it has remained largely stable. During the recover, Professional and businesses services surpassed it in share of total employment. These jobs are more effected by downturns in the business cycle than those in education and health, but they tend to recover more quickly than those in manufacturing or trade.

Government employment (including federal, state, and local) has trended slightly down in recent years. The growing sector of leisure and hospitality is close to surpassing it. Construction has yet to recover fully from the 2008 collapse of the housing industry. Even in the best of times, however, it constitutes a relatively small portion of the region’s economy.

Grouping many kinds of jobs into a handful of supersectors is useful for understanding some kinds of broad economic changes. But these categories also include broadly disparate jobs in terms of wages and experience required. Above are the specific jobs likely to grow the fastest in Milwaukee county by 2024. These estimates were created by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development in 2014. Below is the same chart recreated for Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties.

Both Milwaukee and the WOW counties are expected to add some high paying jobs. The ranks of registered nurses, computer systems analysts, and certain sales representatives are all expected to grow considerably. An average employee in each of these industries makes over $50,000 a year. However, even more jobs will likely be added at the lower-paying end of the spectrum. Due to the aging nature of our population, many of these will be in the caring professions—personal care aides, home health aides, nursing assistants, etc. None of these jobs pay well. An average employee will do well to make $25,000 annually. Food service workers will likely make even less.

As discussed elsewhere, the Milwaukee area fails to attract many new migrants. Not counting international immigration, we have a net outflow of movers. Filling the needs of our labor market requires making good use of our own homegrown workforce. This means businesses across the region will likely look to Milwaukee to fill both low and high-paying jobs. Regarding the latter—the region’s largest colleges and universities are all located in Milwaukee. One of Milwaukee county’s most significant growing industries in the 21st century is higher education which has added close to 3,000 jobs since 2000.

Milwaukee county will also likely provide much of the region’s future lower-wage laborers, if only because Milwaukee is where most of the future workforce lives. The population pyramids below show the age distributions of the populations of Milwaukee city and Waukesha county. The most populous four bars in Milwaukee are all under age 30. By comparison, the largest four bars in Waukesha county are ages 45 to 65. Waukesha’s workforce is aging out just as the bulk of Milwaukee’s population is entering its prime working years.

A recent Marquette Law School Poll of the Milwaukee Area asked respondents about their satisfaction with their community and plans for the future. Overall, wealthy people were likely to say, “I’m happy here and will probably stay for the next five years.” This view was shared by 69 percent of those earning at least $75,000. Only 4 percent answered, “I’m unhappy here and will probably move in the next five years.” By comparison, only 37 percent of respondents from households earning fewer than $40,000 a year reported being happy and intending to stay. Twenty-one percent were unhappy and intended to leave “their community” within the next five years.

The Milwaukee area’s economy continues to shift—in line with national trends—away from manufacturing and trades and toward a more service-based economy. Some of these jobs, such as nurses and high-tech workers, pay well. A few solidly middle-class jobs such as customer service representatives and advanced computer-based manufacturing continue to exhibit strong growth as well. Nonetheless, many of these new service-sector jobs pay poorly, and these low wages likely contribute to the desire of so many low-income area residents to leave their communities. Building a stable, prosperous future for the area will require not just making the region attractive to newcomers, but also improving the quality of life for people who already live here.

Commuting and Migrating in the Milwaukee Area

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This post is part 2 of a 3-part series based on data originally presented at the first Milwaukee Area Project conference. Part 1, overviews trends in population, employment, and wages since 1990. Part 3, considers the future of the Milwaukee area workforce.

The map above traces commuting flows between each of the 100-plus cities, towns, and villages in the 5-county Milwaukee area. The red lines depict commuters entering or leaving communities outside the region.

In the past, a traditional view of a metropolitan area would likely have been an urban core with many long, straight lines connecting it to the surrounding predominately residential suburbs. This is not the case any longer. In economic terms, the dominant part of the region is now the horizontal axis running roughly west from Milwaukee, through Wauwatosa and Brookfield, and on to Waukesha.

Racine county is less connected. It sends quite a few workers to Milwaukee and Waukesha county, but comparatively few workers travel the other way. Racine is also substantially connected to its neighboring counties of Walworth and Kenosha.

While the above map includes commuting flows in both directions, the one below shows net commuters. Green municipalities have larger populations during the day than at night. Milwaukee city attracts the most workers—some 125,000 in total. Still, nearly 95,000 people leave the city for work every day. Thirty-thousand of them go to Waukesha county, while 30,000 in Waukesha commute to the city of Milwaukee. The net-worker balance between Milwaukee city and Waukesha county is virtually equal.

Most people in the Milwaukee area get to work the same way—by driving 20-25 minutes in a car, alone. Regionally 8% carpool, 4% use public transportation, and 3% walk. Differences between the counties are small, as the graph below shows. Milwaukee city workers are the least likely to drive alone. Eleven percent carpool, 9% take public transit, and 5% walk. Working at home is rare everywhere, but it is most common in wealthy Ozaukee county where 6% of workers do so. Half that many do so in the City of Milwaukee.

Knowing that the great majority of commuters travel alone by car gives added significance to traffic data. Below we have plotted counts from a Wisconsin Department of Transportation traffic monitor on I-94 just west of 37th Street in Milwaukee. The graph contains all traffic from 4:00 to 10:00 on weekday mornings. Of course, this is not the same as commuting. It includes people driving for other reasons, many people work during other times of the day, and I-94 is just one of the ways people travel to work. Still, the traffic monitor’s location is part of the major east-west commuting axis visible on the commuting flow map discussed above, so we expect traffic trends to reflect commuting patterns to a considerable degree.

Sure enough, while eastbound flows outnumbered westbound flows during the early 2000s, the recovery from the Great Recession has seen the two converge at around 20,000 in each direction every weekday morning. This is consistent with the 30,000 commuters between Waukesha county and Milwaukee estimated by the Census Bureau.

Though it has declined in recent years, moving for work is a common cause of migration.[1] Given this, it’s not a surprise that the map of municipal population growth below share similarities with the map of net commuters. Places where people travel to work are also frequently (but not always) places where people want to live. Racine city is a notable exception. Leaving aside the City of Milwaukee, growth has slowed from the 1990s. The Milwaukee area’s growth is also low in comparison to more dynamic areas of the state like Dane county.

One reason for slow growth is the region’s subpar record in drawing new residents from outside the area. The chart below shows net domestic migration as a percent of total population for each metropolitan statistical area in the United States. Both MSAs in the 5-county area lost more people to domestic migration than they gained. To be clear, this doesn’t include people who entered or left the country.

When people do move to the 5-county area from elsewhere, they are most likely to move to one of our two major cities—Milwaukee or Waukesha. Thirty-four percent of the region’s population lives in the city of Milwaukee, but the city attracts 39% of new movers. Waukesha’s share of newcomers is also disproportionately large.

This attractiveness to migrants is likely connected to Milwaukee’s recent growth in total establishments. Population growth and business growth operate in a positive feedback loop, so the attractiveness of Milwaukee to certain kinds of migrants is both a cause and an effect of the economic boom taking place in some parts of the city.


Population & Employment Trends in the Milwaukee Area

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This post is part 1 of a 3-part series based on data originally presented at the first Milwaukee Area Project conference. Part 2  focuses on commuting and migration. Part 3, considers the future of the Milwaukee area workforce.

Over the past few decades, the Milwaukee area has evolved from a traditional central city and suburban dichotomy to a more evenly balanced multi-polar region. In 1970, about 46% of the entire five-county region lived within Milwaukee City limits and two-thirds lived within Milwaukee county. Today, the county’s share of the population has fallen to 54%. Milwaukee City is still more populous than any “suburban” county, but Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee have all grown significantly.

The most robust recent gains have occurred in Waukesha and Washington counties, both of which enjoyed double-digit growth rates from 2000 to 2016. Washington county added 17,800 new residents and Waukesha 37,700.

Over the same period the city of Milwaukee lost about 1,900 people—although this 0.3% decline represents a major improvement over the previous decade, which saw the city drop by more than 31,000 residents. Among incorporated municipalities, Waukesha city gained the most (7,500), with Oak Creek just behind (7,400). The largest losses came in Racine (4,300), followed by Milwaukee and West Allis (1,200).


Total employees over the years tells a similar story. (This refers to total jobs in the county, regardless of where the workers live). In 2016, the 5-county region hosted 895,000 jobs. Fifty-four percent of these positions were located in Milwaukee county, while 27% were in Waukesha.

During the 1990s Waukesha county added jobs at a robust average pace of 4.1% a year. Milwaukee county’s growth was much more anemic— an average of just of 0.2% annually. Likewise, the national economic downturn in the early 2000s affected the two counties in very different ways. From 2000 to 2007 Waukesha’s job growth merely slowed to an annual pace of  0.9%, while Milwaukee’s labor force contracted—declining an average of 0.6% each year.

These differences between the two counties have been less apparent since the Great Recession. Both counties fell hard. Milwaukee lost 6.3% of its workforce from 2007 to 2010, and Waukesha lost 7.5%. Since then, they have recovered in a similar fashion. During the 2010s Waukesha’s average annual growth rate has been 1.1% and Milwaukee’s has been 0.4%. In raw terms Milwaukee added 19,000 jobs from 2010 to 2016; Waukesha added 20,000.

The Milwaukee Area’s smaller counties have also recovered steadily from the Great Recession. Since 2010 Racine has averaged 0.6% annual job growth, Washington 1.4%, and Ozaukee 2.3%.

Workers in the entire five-county Milwaukee Area earned about $45.6 billion in 2016. Milwaukee county earners brought home 55% of this. Waukesha employee’s earned 28% of the total. Racine, Ozaukee, and Washington counties combine for the remaining 17%.

These broad measures of population, employment, and wages all tell a consistent story. For the past quarter century the Milwaukee Area has grown increasingly decentralized. Washington and Ozaukee have expanded their population, but the major growth has occurred in Waukesha county.

Still, several signs suggest that Milwaukee has turned the corner on some of its long-running economic struggles. The steep population loss of the 1990s has subsided, and Milwaukee City’s population now seems to be holding steady at just below 600,000. In comparison to the early and mid-2000s, the region’s recovery from the Great Recession has been fairly equal across Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. Some of the strongest evidence for Milwaukee’s ongoing revival is in the graph below. According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Milwaukee county added 4,377 establishments in net terms from 2010 to 2016. During the same time period, the remaining four counties combined for just 481 additional establishments.[1] Milwaukee county alone still holds over half the region’s people, employs over half the region’s workers, and generates over half the region’s wealth.

[1] The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines an establishment as follows. “An establishment is commonly understood as a single economic unit, such as a farm, a mine, a factory, or a store, that produces goods or services. Establishments are typically at one physical location and engaged in one, or predominantly one, type of economic activity for which a single industrial classification may be applied. A firm, or a company, is a business and may consist of one or more establishments, where each establishment may participate in different predominant economic activity.”

Wisconsin Grows, but Most Municipalities Shrink

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On May 25, 2017, the Census Bureau released its 2016 annual population estimates for subcounty geographic units.[1] This granular level of detail allows us to look more closely at where population change has occurred across the state.

As a whole, Wisconsin gained an estimated 91,419 people between July 2010 and July 2016—including 10,817 in the year ending July 2016. But these headline numbers obscure major variation across the state. Of the more than 1,850 cities, towns, and villages making up Wisconsin, 833 grew since 2010 and 986 of them shrank. Smaller places tended to get smaller, while bigger places got bigger. In 2010, 70 percent of the state lived in municipalities which would grow in the next six years, compared to just 30 percent in municipalities that would shrink. Much of this loss was concentrated in the northern region of the state, with the notable exception of several communities in Douglas County near Duluth, MN.

The map above shows the percent change in population for each Wisconsin municipality from 2010 to 2016.[2] The Green Bay/Appleton and greater Madison regions saw some of the highest growth, with additional sustained growth occurring in the Western part of the state including La Crosse, Eau Claire, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs. Nearly all portions of Marathon County surrounding Wausau have also experienced growth since 2010, although the City of Wausau itself declined marginally. This stands in stark contrast to nearby Rusk County, which lost 4 percent of its total population over the same time period. The only county to fare worse was neighboring Price County where the population declined by 4.5 percent. Dane County fared best with 9 percent growth, followed by tiny Menomonee (7 percent) and Green Bay area Brown County (5 percent).

Applying the same scale to just the past year’s change reveals similar, though necessarily less severe, trends. From 2015 to 2016 the City of Milwaukee lost an estimated 4,300 people, or about 0.7 percent of its population. Combined with a minor decline the year before, this essentially wiped out the city’s slight growth from 2010 to 2014.

Despite stagnant population size in places like Milwaukee and Wausau, Wisconsin’s growth is driven by its most populous communities. Municipalities with populations of at least 10,000 grew an average of 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2016. Municipalities with less than 1,000 residents shrank an average of 0.5 percent.


[1] Estimates are for July 1 of each year.

[2] I use the Census Bureau’s July population estimate base for 2010, not the decennial census. The technical unit of measurement in the map is Minor Civil Division (MCD), which corresponds with Wisconsin’s municipalities except in situations where municipalities cross county lines. In those rare cases, each county’s portion of the municipality is measured and mapped uniquely. Statistics in the report, however, reflect the total figures for each municipality.


Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Public Perceptions Of Water-Related Issues

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Public perceptions of environmental risk have long been controversial when used as a tool to help set public policy.  Many scholars have argued that there is a fundamental “mismatch”[1] between “notoriously inaccurate”[2] public perceptions of the magnitude and sources of environmental risks, as compared with expert analyses of the same.  Even if that is true, public perceptionBanner logo - Earth in a drops would be worth measuring for other reasons: for example, studies have confirmed that “federal environmental laws reflect public perceptions of risks more than they do scientific understanding.”[3]  And just this year, a gathering of environmental law scholars discussing the future of environmental law stressed the increasing ethical obligation to consider (often marginalized) community voices, turning environmental law into “a tool for collaboration and connection . . . rather than conflict.”  In short, perhaps “public perceptions of environmental risk deserve more credit than comparative risk analysts admit.”[4]

Despite a general sense of “increasing public concerns about issues of water quality and the health of riparian environments,”[5] surprisingly few efforts have been made to quantify the level of public disquiet over these problems.  To help fill that gap in Wisconsin, two surveys were conducted in August 2016 by the Marquette Law School Poll, and find significant levels of concern over water quality and policy generally.  However, most Wisconsin voters reported lower levels of worry regarding their personal sources of drinking water.

Interest in Water Quality

Recent reporting has highlighted drinking water concerns across the state—including lead levels,[6] agriculture-related bacterial contamination,[7] and a failed legislative effort to ease municipal water system privatization.[8] Our survey results indicate that not only journalists are taking an interest in these topics. Seventy-eight percent of respondents reported hearing at least some about the lead crisis in the Flint, Michigan water supply. When asked about the safety of the water supply in Wisconsin’s own low income communities, 68% were very or somewhat concerned, 17% not too concerned, and just 13% not at all concerned. However, when asked about the safety of the water supply in their own community, respondents were more confident. A combined 56% were either not too concerned or not at all concerned, with another 44% being very or somewhat concerned.

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