Before the COVID-19 crash, state’s job picture was mixed

BLS puts out fourth-quarter data on employment growth, declines

workers protest unsafe conditions
Workers at Amazon protest unsafe working conditions in Shakopee, Minn., in December 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased concerns about job health and safety as employees are being called back to work. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, CC BY-2.0.


Newly available data on Wisconsin jobs in the last quarter of 2019 paints a mixed picture, with growth in the state’s stronger regions and declines in parts that have long been struggling.

The quarterly numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are the most reliable measures of employment, according to labor economists, but generally come out nearly half a year after the period of time they measure.

With the economic slowdown triggered by actions that Wisconsin and the rest of the country took in March blocking public movement and group gatherings to curb spread of the virus responsible for COVID-19, however, the data is unusually out of date, although it’s still informative.

Statewide, the broad patterns reported in December were consistent with what the state has experienced for some time: stable growth overall with robust manufacturing, but also trouble spots in the northern and rural regions, says Dennis Winters, chief economist for the state Department of Workforce Development.

“There wasn’t much in this report that we weren’t expecting,” Winters tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

Dane County continued to show strong growth, as well as Kenosha County, boosted by its proximity to Chicago, and St. Croix County, just across the Mississippi River from the Minnesota Twin Cities. Meanwhile, weaker job prospects persisted in troubling many of the state’s rural counties, particularly in the north, exacerbated by a shrinking and aging population and workforce.

The smaller populations of many rural counties also exaggerate the percentages of both job growth and job declines, Winters points out.

With the pandemic and the state and national response to it, however, “everything’s just tossed up in the air,” Winters says. A broader acceptance of working at home, for example, could lead to more movement into rural areas, especially if broadband internet access becomes more widely available.

The economically shakier parts of the state also happen to be areas that have come to depend increasingly on tourism and hospitality, raising questions about their future, he adds.

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.