Professionals return home to replace aging workforce

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, November 25, 2007
— Derek Wickhem never expected to return to Janesville so soon.

The 2001 Craig High School graduate was willing to move anywhere in the country to get a job in computer mapping after graduating from UW-Whitewater with a degree in geography, but the perfect job just wasn’t out there.

Instead, Wickhem, 25, moved back to Janesville about three months ago and took a job selling insurance for his father’s company, John Wickhem Agency.

The move has worked well so far, he said. He now plans to stay in the city and take over his father’s business someday.

“Janesville is ideally located for me,” he said. “I’m not a big city kind of guy, but within an hour I’m within three cities pretty much ... so if I want to enjoy the city life, it’s just a stone’s throw away.”

No one seems to know how many Janesville natives, such as Wickhem, return to their hometown after earning degrees to start professional careers.

But local economic and business leaders appear to agree on one thing: They want more of them.

Attracting and retaining young professionals “is like the topic of the day among chambers of commerce,” said Dan Cunningham with Forward Janesville.

That’s because young, educated workers offer a “brain gain” to the community, said James Otterstein, Rock County economic development manager. They help build an economy’s business and professional sector and replace aging workers.

But Wisconsin historically has seen a “brain drain” of young professionals leaving the state, and Rock County tends to follow the state’s lead, Otterstein said.

In Rock County, the proportion of residents age 20-29 dropped from 14 percent in 1990 to 12.3 percent in 2000, Otterstein said. The number is projected to drop even further by 2030, he said.

To keep educated young people in the Janesville area, the community must provide jobs for them, Otterstein said. Job opportunities form the number one reason University of Wisconsin alumni give for leaving the state, he said.

That was certainly a big factor for Jennifer Meyer, a 1994 Craig High School graduate who never looked back after earning her bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison. She lived on the East Coast for a while before moving to Chicago, earning her Master of Business Administration from the University of Chicago.

“The problem is that the type of job I’m working in, financial services, there’s nothing in Janesville,” she said.

But even if Meyer, 31, could find her ideal job in Janesville, she wouldn’t take it, she said.

“Janesville is a great place to grow up in, and it’s a great place to raise a family, but for a single person, there’s nothing to do,” she said.

Janesville has made some strides in offering activities for young people, such as the opening of the Janesville Performing Arts Center in 2004 and The Armory in 2006, but it still has a long way to go to attract young talent, said Jennifer Griffith, human resources director at Freedom Plastics.

Until June, Griffith was president of Blackhawk Human Resource Association, a network of human resource professionals in Rock and surrounding counties.

“A lot of young people are looking for work/life balance, and you have to be creative to find things to do for young people in Janesville,” she said.

She thinks the community needs more of a nightlife, with live music venues, dance clubs and hip, inexpensive restaurants.

Local businesses also need to do more to adjust themselves to young people’s needs and offer wages that compete with surrounding markets such as Madison, Rockford and Milwaukee, Griffith said.

So far, Forward Janesville hasn’t made much of an effort to reach out to young professionals because it

hasn’t heard a need from its members, Cunningham said. The organization occasionally has discussed starting a young professionals group, but the idea hasn’t gone anywhere.

But Cunningham thinks the need might increase as Janesville’s economy continues to “diversify.” He pointed out that Mercy Health Systems is now the city’s largest employer.

He also thinks the city has a good start in attracting more young people with its latest downtown plan approved in October. The plan includes new downtown housing, redeveloped historical buildings and a “High Street entertainment area.”

Traci Rogers, executive director of HealthNet, agrees the city is on the right track. Rogers, a 1998 Craig High School graduate, returned to Janesville in 2006 after earning degrees in Madison, La Crosse and Chicago.

“I was just lucky enough to find a job in my hometown, so it worked really well,” she said.

Rogers, 27, said she has seen the people she grew up with step into leadership roles in the community and thinks they will attract even more young people.

“The more young professionals that locate to Janesville, the more attractive it is for other young professionals,” she said.

Attracting young professionals

The first step in reaching out to young people is creating a young professionals organization, said Molly Foley with Next Generation Consulting of Madison.

The company helps communities, companies and organizations attract, retain and engage young professionals.

Next Generation looks at seven areas when assessing a community’s potential to attract young people, she said:

-- After hours. What kind of entertainment is available?

-- Around town. What’s the traffic situation? Is public transportation available? Is the community pedestrian-friendly?

-- Vitality. How healthy is the community? Does it offer bike trails or other types of recreation?

-- Earning. What kinds of jobs are available? Is there opportunity for advancement? Are wages in line with the rest of the region?

-- Learning. Is there opportunity for lifelong learning? Are higher education institutes nearby?

-- Social capital. How engaged are residents with the community? Do young people feel welcomed in volunteering and community leadership positions? Is the community diverse?

-- Cost of lifestyle. Do wages reflect costs?

Last updated: 9:54 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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