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SPRING TAKING OFF

Mixed job market, local economy one year after pandemic began

When the pandemic slammed into the economy in March and April last year, shockwaves of fear pulsed through businesses and families as shutdowns in some sectors stripped down livelihoods. Even during those months, though, and certainly beyond as the economy picked up again, some segments of the economy powered through the pandemic, even thrived.

As the pandemic passes the one year mark, job seekers are looking at a market with a mix of business stability, from robust to struggling, but one where job postings are plentiful. Potential employees, however, may have to learn some new skills – and be flexible in the type of job they will do.

"I'm speaking in generalities here, as obviously there will be outliers in the analysis, but I'm hearing that most businesses remained strong through the pandemic," said Joel Zimmerman, executive director of the Washburn County Economic Development Corporation. "Certainly most businesses saw a downturn in the months of March and April. But many saw strong numbers for the remainder of the year."

Many businesses made up for the downturn, he said, while others are doing OK thanks to the infusion of dollars through the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Plan and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

"There has been some interest in people starting businesses or expanding businesses during the pandemic," Zimmerman said, "but many of those ideas were brought to me at the beginning of the pandemic, before we realized that it would last for over a year. My understanding is that most of those projects are still intending to start or expand, but certainly more caution has slowed the processes down."

Real estate, building, and manufacturing have been very healthy across the region.

"The real estate market was strong throughout the period with an estimated 15% increase," said Mike Gardner, executive director of the Sawyer County/Lac Courte Oreilles Economic Development Corp.

"Frenzied market" is how Cole Rabska, executive director of the Bayfield County Economic Development Corporation, described the region's real estate industry, in part because people found they could work from home and they wanted to do it from the Northland.

"Many people realized that they were able to experience a higher quality of life in our rural communities that would allow them to both work and play in the region," he said. "With companies becoming more flexible with teleworking arrangements, this allows people the ability to live where they want to and still be able to perform their current positions. This shift in the world of work has benefited our region where there is strong broadband connectivity."

Banks benefited from and helped make the moves possible.

"Banks are doing well with mortgages at an alltime high, which has also been good for realtors," said Jerome Pritzl, president of Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation. "The PPP programs have also helped financial institutions as well as qualifying businesses. Lumber and hardware stores, as well as contractors, have done very well."

Cole Rabska, Executive Director, Bayfield County Economic Development Corporation concurred with the contractors having an excellent year.

"Between remodels of homes and businesses and construction of new facilities, they had a very busy summer," he said.

As more visitors became permanent residents, other visitors flowed into the area and residents stayed closer to home, boosting summer tourism and jobs despite COVID-19.

"Due to many factors associated with the pandemic, we found ourselves with an influx of visitors from more

populated urban areas to our communities throughout the summer," Rabska said. "Outdoor recreation and those related businesses also experienced an increase in customers."

That meant jobs for workers in a time when some had feared they would not exist at all over the past season.

"The resorts in Sawyer County reported a better-than-expected year," Gardner said.

Manufacturing also held its own across the region. That was true especially with food, beverage, and critical infrastructure products, said Becca Coleman, project manager, Eau Claire Area Economic Development. "The main obstacle during the pandemic in these sectors is keeping the workforce safe, healthy, and showing up for work."

Another problem manufacturers face is finding qualified workers, Pritzl said.

"I am working with a number of manufacturers that are planning to expand, and the ability to find new employees is the single largest issue they face," said Dave Armstrong, executive director of Barron County Economic Development Corporation. "Most have gone through wage reviews and have raised their starting wages in excess of $15 per hour with great benefit packages."

Some manufacturers' output was slowed or stalled due to limited imports or exports of materials and orders, Rabska said.

"Many of these companies are already seeing business starting to return to normal levels," he added.

Manufacturers' products have to get to their destination, and with all of the sectors that continued to do well – and all of the people at home shopping locally where they could, buying online when they couldn't, and finishing long-put-off projects while stuck at home – commercial driving boomed.

"The top three companies in regional job postings are within the freight and trucking industry," said Mari Kay-Nabozny, chief executive officer of the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board. "Large retail outfits like supermarkets and big box stores also seem the be weathering the pandemic well. Thankfully some of the small Main Street businesses are also faring well under the pandemic as residents shop closer to home."

A consequence of retail big box stores doing well is that it can hurt small locally owned businesses, Armstrong noted.

Challenges

Across the region, the businesses most sidelined by the pandemic are in hospitality, from bars and restaurants to entertainment venues.

"Entertainment and hospitality-related businesses were devastated by the COVID lockdowns and will take some time to come back. Some may never do so," Armstrong said.

"Summer brought some relief as many hotels were busy as people ventured out into the Northwoods," Kay-Nabozny said. "However the 'sandwich' seasons where mud and rain prevail were challenging. Fitness facilities, salons, movie theaters, performing arts organizations, and other similar entities continue to face challenges."

"Performing arts businesses, who survive because of crowds will be the hardest to reopen, and had shut down first," Coleman said. "Eau Claire's own Pablo Center was shuttered completely and remains this way for the foreseeable future. This is a big hit to our community in terms of jobs, economic impact, and general morale of the community."

Others that saw their income tumble or stop altogether were smaller retail, coffee shops, and those who perform at events such as festivals, Rabska said. "The lack of events reduced their ability to sell in person, and they will not rebound until these events are continued or they adapt their business model to include selling online through places like Etsy, for example. Individuals who have moved to online sales/marketing have found success (in some instances).

"Catering businesses took the hardest impact in our area," he said, and they face a difficult recovery until either the pandemic is over or people feel more comfortable hosting events.

Despite the slowdown in hospitality, they still are looking for employees, Pritzl said, since some people have left the field due to COVID-19.

Zimmerman said restaurants and taverns have had to look at how to manage business models to reach customers, in spite of limiting seating capacity, all while balancing what he calls "dueling customer concerns."

"Polarization of society during the pandemic led to some very uncomfortable times for business owners," Zimmerman said. "Things started on a fairly united front in terms of the public coming together and wanting to support local businesses. However, if a business tried to make their location a safer place for customers, some would boycott it, and likewise, when a business wasn't perceived to have made changes to make things safer for customers, they were also boycotted by others. This brought on a lot of extra stressors for business owners and their employees."

With businesses adding online ordering, curbside pickup, more conveniences, and modernizations, businesses likely could attract even more customers this year, Zimmerman said.

Future

Looking ahead, Kay-Nabozny anticipates that commercial trucking will stay strong, continuing the pre-pandemic trend that has since been strengthened by online sales.

"I also expect there will be a bit of a 'Roaring '20's feel to late 2021 and 2022 as people flock to any sort of social interactions," she said. "This may result in a boost to the performing arts, athletic events, and other large gatherings. Early childhood education also will continue to need workers as parents and caregivers who may have temporarily been at home this past year opt to return to work."

"We are seeing interest in a number of small business start-ups but initially not needing employees," Gardner said. "There are numerous ads in our paper for businesses in need of employees which will increase as the season progresses. We would like to see more light manufacturing opportunities and forest industry opportunities develop."

A consensus is that the biggest challenge in the post-pandemic recovery will be having enough employees to fill returning and new jobs.

"Almost all sectors of business are looking for employees. Our region in particular has a workforce shortage struggle," Zimmerman said.

"Home construction employers are already seeking employees and are having troubles filling positions," Coleman said. "Food manufacturers are expanding but are finding slow results for obtaining enough applicants. Schuman Cheese in Fall Creek and Nestle Health are two expanding businesses that are hiring for good-paying manufacturing jobs right now."

Price County has more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other county in Wisconsin, Pritzl said. In addition to wanting those jobs filled, the county is hoping to attract professionals and tradesmen to replace those heading into retirement.

"Manufacturing is in terrible need of employees, and it's not the type [of] manufacturing facilities of yesteryear," Armstrong said. "Most modern manufacturing facilities are high tech and clean, again with great wages and benefits. The biggest area of concern going forward is the effect automation and artificial intelligence will have on the future jobs."

He said he has reached out to Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire about that as it is hard to know what jobs and training will be in demand a decade or so into the future.

"Currently, all employers in our region are seeing a shortage of employees," Rabska summarized.

To reverse that, businesses are looking at incentives such as sign-on bonuses, on-the-job training, and greater benefits and pay, he said.

"The opportunity of working remotely and 80% of Bayfield County being served with high-speed internet has opened up a lot of avenues in different sectors of the job market," Rabska said.

Tips

Getting the right job may mean being open to a different kind of job and being flexible with one's skills, maybe even developing a different skill set, Coleman said.

"Employers want dependable and positive employees," she said. "Show a willingness to learn new skills and be energetic while doing it."

"I would watch for increased opportunities for industry-specific training to update skills and job-seeking capabilities," Gardner said. "For skilled individuals the best course would be to make contacts to be positioned as things open up."

Rabska advises discussing with employers their expectations and being honest and realistic about one's abilities, being willing to learn more, and being ready to do something that some people may balk at: starting at the bottom.

"There are many entry-level positions open that have potential for individuals to 'climb the ladder' as time goes on," Rabska said.

"Apply for a position that you want even if you don't have the experience," he urged, as employers are willing to train, to teach, and to advance hard workers.

"People looking for jobs should come to the area and meet with our CEP office or contact the Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation," Pritzl urged, noting Price County's motto: "Price County is a great place to Live, Work, and Raise a Family."

Kay-Nabozny advises job seekers to check out JobCenterofWisconsin.com to search for current openings.

"There are many resources available for those looking for financial assistance to get re-trained, and they should contact us," she said. "Job Centers are projected to open this spring by appointment if individuals need help with job applications, resumes, and other job-seeking advice. Employers also have a plethora of resources at their fingertips to help defray the cost of training and hiring and should contact us to learn more."

Her website is nwwib.com.

Armstrong said Job Centers not only have job listings but also can help with special training programs, childcare, transportation, being without a diploma, and more.

"Check with the folks at the Job Center in Rice Lake, there are many programs available now due to COVID money being plentiful," he said.

One of the biggest complaints Zimmerman hears from business owners and managers is that people do not even bother to show up for their interview.

"There are few certainties in life, but one of the ones you can bet on: If you don't show up for an interview, you will not get the job," he said.

Once at the interview, people should show they are interested by being informed. Research ahead of time to learn about the company and the position, Zimmerman said.

"The amount of interviews I've conducted over the years where people didn't have any idea what the company was that they applied for, nor any clue of what the job entailed (even when it was in the job posting), was jaw dropping," he said. "This step is important whether this is your first job, a part-time job, a full-time job, a skilled labor job, or a manufacturing job.

"And finally, we live in an interesting region at an interesting time. It used to be that we found job listings in the local paper's classified ads, which can be done. But we also live in a technology age, and many employers post job listings on websites like indeed.com or the like. I've seen jobs posted on Facebook as well.

"There are organizations in this region dedicated to helping people find jobs, and they are great resources as well," Zimmerman said. "But if there is a place you want to work, stop on by, if safe, or call the business and mention you're interested in working for them and see if they have an opening for you. That personal touch of reaching out can go a long way."


County calls for change to levy caps

In the past several years, voters in Price County have likely noticed a steady stream of cuts to country-funded programs every time budget season comes around.

Some of those more recent cuts have included terminating the county's tourism department, changes to the UW-Extension programming, or eliminating county funding for the Books By Mail program.

Other cuts that have been considered, but eventually turned down due to pushback from citizens, including eliminating funding for UW-Extension programs.

Money-saving efforts that have likely slipped the attention of the average person include cuts to the number of employees in almost every county department, borrowing more frequently to pay for purchases rather than paying out of pocket, reducing program offerings, or postponing projects.

According to county administrator Nick Trimner, the reason for all those cuts can be traced back to the 0% levy caps imposed on municipalities statewide over a decade ago.

In practical terms, this means that local property taxes can only be increased under very specific circumstances — chief of which is based on the value of new construction within a region.

Even with these property tax limitations in place, Wisconsin has some of the highest property taxes in the nation, according to information gathered through the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 American Community Survey.

In a 10-1 vote on Feb. 16, the Price County Board of Supervisors passed a largely symbolic resolution calling for the complete elimination of the levy cap currently mandated for municipalities statewide, claiming the cap is crippling the county's ability to operate efficiently.

In the resolution, the county board requested the levy cap either be eliminated or replaced with an allowance that would accommodate for inflation and changing state mandated services and programs. Supervisor Ginny Strobl cast the sole dissenting vote.

This is the fourth time Price County has passed this resolution since 2012.

The resolution will be forwarded to Governor Tony Evers, the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature, the state legislators for Price County and the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Some of the cost-saving mechanisms prompted by the levy cap have been beneficial for the residents of Price

County, according to Trimner, forcing the county to reconsider each program and become more efficient.

But the county is quickly heading to an unmanageable level, according to Trimner, and the continued increase in cost of living and state-mandated programs will result in more non-mandated programs being cut or reduced.

While the county board and administration often hears from citizens when popular non-mandated programs are on the chopping block — such as the proposed cut to the 4-H program back in 2019 — Trimner said there is less realization of the other services the county offers.

These include child protective services, foster care programs, senior services, and mental health resources, among others — many of which are mandated by the state.

In order to tackle projects that cannot be delayed, the county has assumed debt with $5.58 million dollars of longterm general obligation debt as of Jan. 21 of this year. The county expected to pay off $2.585 million of that debt by the end of this year.

"Eventually there may be no non-mandated services, since that is all we may be able to afford," Trimner told the Review in an interview on March 9.

Even then, state mandated services may see cuts or cost-saving measures that affect the quality of service offered, delaying processes, or altering services.

"One example that usually hits home would be snowplowing, for example," explained Trimner. "A cost saving measure might be to set a policy that if the county receives an inch or less snow, the plows don't go out to clear the highways. That's not something we're considering right now, but those are the type of cost-saving procedures we'd have to look at."

While Trimner said other counties across Wisconsin are experiencing similar challenges, he noted that the lack of incounty resources in Price County increases the cost of connecting people to the services they require.

In his 2021-23 proposed executive budget, Gov. Evers recommended the levy limit be increased to 2%.

The Joint Finance Committee has scheduled four public hearings in order to gain the feedback of Wisconsinites on the proposed budget. These will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 9 at UW-Whitewater; on April 21 at The Hodag Dome in Rhinelander; on April 22 at UW-Stout in Menomonie; and a final virtual hearing on April 28.

After accepting public comment, the Joint Finance Committee will revise the budget, after which it will go before the Assembly and the Senate for further review and alteration.

The budget is slated to be finalized by July.


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