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Solve the people problem in rural Wisconsin

Rural Wisconsin is facing a people problem.

There are simply not enough people to go around, or rather not enough workingage families replacing those who have left the workforce due to well-earned retirement.

Employers are seeing this with recruitment efforts for all levels of positions on a near constant basis. School officials talk about applicant pools that used to have dozens of people vying for a position, and now have positions that get a handful of applicants or none at all. The deeper the pool of applicants the better the chances of getting a truly outstanding employee.

Industry human resources directors bemoan the quality of candidates or complain of their best workers being poached by competitors offering better compensation packages.

While this is a great situation if you happen to be a young person looking for a job, the real risk is that rural communities could lose out in economic growth as companies seek to expand where there are people to work. Businesses go where there are the resources they need. Just as a cheese plant needs dairy farms within hauling distance, a factory needs workers. If the resources aren’t there to support a business, businesses move to where the resources are.

Many rural communities are dependent on a few larger employers. Industry moving out could be a deathblow, turning what was once a vibrant community into a wide spot on the road and place name on a map.

Beyond employment, the people problem extends to churches, community groups and civic leadership. People are increasingly being stretched thin. Longtime clubs and organizations, which for generations have been the backbone of community engagement, are fading and facing challenges of not being able to continue their good work and missions. Longtime events face the risk of simply going away.

This lack of people has also been keenly felt in the volunteer emergency response services. Volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews are scarce with the average age of crews in rural areas climbing. With not enough people to go around, coverage increasingly relies on full-time paid staff dramatically increasing the expense for all taxpayers as well as those using the services.

Rural communities in Wisconsin stand at a crossroads. They can choose to do nothing and resign to a slow decline and the hope that the last one out turns off the lights. Alternatively, elected leaders from the state capital to the town hall can be proactive and recognize rural population decline as the pressing threat facing the state’s longterm wellbeing.

If there is any hope of turning around the population decline, civic and business leaders must stand up to the challenge and address things like access to affordable, reliable child care and housing. Community leaders and citizens must look to investing in amenities and ensuring that rural schools remain strong. Communities must also recognize that while fiscal responsibility is a good thing, there is a line between being frugal and being cheap. Once a community crosses that line, to the point of ignoring basic infrastructure needs, it is a downward spiral.

The state must also play a role in ensuring the continued health of rural communities. Wisconsin must use its historic budget surplus to increase equalization aid to schools and municipal governments while at the same time working to relax or eliminate the artificial restrictions that reward areas that are growing at the expense of areas that are not.

Government, business and community leaders must work cooperatively at all levels to ensure that communities remain strong and viable.