When Mark Tyler thinks about the future of Wisconsin’s economy, he worries there won’t be enough workers to keep it humming.

“We’re transitioning from a ‘skills gap’ problem to what is now a ‘people gap’ problem, meaning the number of working-age people in the workforce is starting to retract,” said Tyler, who co-founded OEM Fabricators Inc. in Woodville and heads a statewide task force on workforce innovation.

“We must do the most with what we’ve got, and not leave any talent on the sidelines,” he said.

That’s why Tyler and other business leaders in western Wisconsin are pushing an initiative that combines attracting and retaining “millennials,” a generation that will make up a majority of the nation’s labor pool within five years, and building tomorrow’s workforce through early childhood education.

Launched about six months ago through United Way St. Croix Valley, the “Family Friendly Workplace” program invites businesses to be certified as “family-friendly” based on current in-house practices such as healthcare coverage, flexible work schedules, paid leave options and even physical space carve-outs for pregnant or nursing mothers.

Businesses pay a modest amount to get certified at one of three levels, with annual fees of $10 per full-time equivalent employee and a $250 application charge.

Money raised through certification fees is invested in early childhood education projects affiliated with United Way St. Croix Valley as part of its larger “Success by 6” program.

Tyler and others hope the effort in western Wisconsin can be adopted statewide, especially in the state’s more urban areas, to help businesses attract and retain workers today while investing in early childhood development that will pay dividends decades from now.

The numbers are hard to dispute: Kids who attend organized but relatively inexpensive pre-school programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to earn more as adults, to stay off welfare and to avoid spending time in jail.

All of that accrues huge dividends for society, with long-term economic paybacks for early childhood education pegged at a minimum of $7 for every dollar spent. Study after study, including some that have meticulously traced pre-school students into middle age, has reached the same conclusion.

The concept is embraced by many business leaders and academia.

“Investing in children during the early years is the best economic investment a community can make,” said Art Rolnick, a former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Tyler, who also serves as a University of Wisconsin regent, thinks Minnesota’s experience with early childhood education is “one of the key differences between Minnesota and Wisconsin” in terms of economic performance.

While Wisconsin has relied mostly on private, non-profit and charitable groups to boost early childhood education, Minnesota has invested public dollars alongside such efforts for 30 years.

The benefits of such programs cut across all income groups, experts agree, but they’re most pronounced in low-income areas where families may lack access to classes, home visits, developmental screening, child care and reading programs that can give children under five a head start.

Those are the kinds of programs the “Family Friendly Workforce” underwrites in Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties.

“Long-term, we need to make sure young people who are entering the workforce are prepared to be there starting in their earliest years,” said Lara Otsuka, who runs the program for United Way St. Croix. “Short term, if you’re an employer and can say you’re family friendly, and have the certification to prove it, it’s a great way to attract and retain employees … and increase productivity.”

So far, the St. Croix “family friendly” program is operating mainly off a federal “Race to the Top” grant, money from the Flowers Family Foundation and support from individual businesses. As the number of certifications grow, it will likely rely on those revenues.

Demographics are not working to Wisconsin’s advantage these days. For the economy to grow, employers, communities and government must find creative ways to educate, attract and retain workers. Something as simple as certifying businesses as “family friendly” is one such example.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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