Workforce Focus will Use Debt Relief to Build Skilled Workforce
By State Senator Julie Lassa
As a member of the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, I got to participate in an extremely in-depth examination of Wisconsin’s workforce trends. The outcome of that process was a four-year strategic plan to address our state’s growing demand for skilled talent – and a shrinking supply that is only predicted to get worse as the Baby Boom generation continues to retire.
Two of the Council’s recommendations involved using student loan debt relief to encourage recent college graduates to bring their skills in high-demand fields to Wisconsin, or to locate to rural areas of the state, which are especially hard hit by the workplace shortage. I especially like this concept, because it would boost our state’s economy two ways. Not only does it help grow and shape Wisconsin’s skilled workforce to meet the demands of tomorrow’s economy, it also help young people with the growing burden of higher education loan debt. That’s why I have authored two bills that address both of these CWI recommendations.
In a recent column, I wrote about the GROW Wisconsin program, which would offer student loan forgiveness to graduates who move to rural communities to take a position or start a business. I call my second bill Wisconsin Workforce Focus: Focusing on Critical Careers and Uptrending Sectors. This bill specifically addresses the “brain drain” of Wisconsin students leaving the state after graduating by offering those with identified high-demand skills debt relief in exchange for staying in Wisconsin. It would also encourage talented young people with those skills to return or move to our state.
Under the bill, the state’s economic development and workforce development agencies would work with educational institutions and regional workforce development boards to identify economic industry sectors that will be critical to Wisconsin’s economy, both now and in the near future. To determine the most important sectors, they will consider not only the demands of industry, but the wages and benefits paid to employees in these sectors as well. Based on current data, these sectors may include advanced manufacturing, healthcare, computer and technical fields, business and financial operations, science, and more.
To qualify for student loan reimbursement, students will have to have earned a college degree and take a job in one of these high-demand fields in the state of Wisconsin within 18 months of graduating. They would have to remain a Wisconsin resident while they are receiving debt relief. If they qualify, these highly-skilled individuals would have payments made on their student loans of up to 20% of their outstanding student loan balance, up to a maximum $15,000 in equal shares over a maximum of five years.
Every year between 2008 and 2012, Wisconsin lost a net of more than 2,200 young people ages 21 to 29 with at least one college degree. That is a situation we have to reverse if we are going to avoid the economic devastation a shrinking skilled workforce would bring to our state. The Department of Workforce Development estimates that by 2022, Wisconsin will have a workforce shortage of 46,000 workers. A flat labor force will reduce productivity, limit income growth, and decrease our ability to maintain our roads and schools. The Wisconsin Workforce Focus bill would offer us a powerful tool to retain and attract more talented young people to live in our state, and to help us keep Wisconsin’s economy strong.