Business leaders and others have reacted strongly to a report released by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in August, suggesting that Wisconsin does not offer enough high-paying jobs to hold its college graduates. Their solution: “Pay the kids what they’re worth.”
Kevin McGee and Ike Brannon, both economists and professors at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, surveyed 1980 and 1990 graduates of Oshkosh on behalf of the Institute. They found that those living outside Wisconsin earn more than those who live in the state. The researchers said that this is more of a difference than could be accounted for by higher costs of living in larger metropolitan areas, such as Chicago or Minneapolis.
Of the 1980 graduates, most of whom are in their early 40s, 24 percent live outside of Wisconsin. The report, entitled “Draining Away,” calls this trend “disturbing,” although McGee said that Wisconsin’s statistics may not be any higher than those of other states.
“As far as we can tell, there haven’t been any studies done in this detail in other states,” McGee said. “Maybe every state has 20 percent of its graduates leaving. Maybe it’s no big deal.”
Of these same graduates, the average salary for those living outside of Wisconsin was $71,250, while the average salary for those still residing in Wisconsin was $56,940, a 23 percent difference.
Graduates with law degrees and Ph.Ds were much more likely to live out-of-state, as were graduates employed in math or science-related fields, such as computers, architecture or engineering, the report stated.
This is where the report meets up with grand plans for southern Wisconsin to become a high-tech or biotechnology corridor.
Nick George, executive director of public affairs for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a lobbying association that represents corporations around the state, says that while Wisconsin’s first priority should be to keep corporations in the state, the number two priority should be to attract new ones, particularly high-tech companies.
“We’d like to stay on top of the trends,” he said.
The association would like to see the state provide a better business climate all around.
“Historically, Wisconsin has been a high-tax, high-spending state,” George said. “We always rank fourth or fifth-highest in the nation in tax rates, when you look at federal, state and local taxes combined.”
Others would like the state to use an aggressive marketing strategy to change the image people have of Wisconsin, from a purely farm state to a sophisticated state with a highly educated workforce.
Marsha Lindsay, president of Lindsay, Stone and Briggs, Inc., a national brand-marketing firm based in Madison, came up with a brand-marketing strategy for the state last year. She told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April that Wisconsin should focus on becoming known as “America’s Biotech Land.”
Without knowing how Wisconsin compares to other states, it is impossible to say whether the state is losing more science and math-related graduates than any other state. Comparisons with states like Illinois and Minnesota do not seem fair, since both of those states have very large metropolitan areas that naturally offer a greater number of high-paying jobs than Madison and Milwaukee.
There may be other reasons the Oshkosh graduates who left the state now earn higher salaries.
“It could mean that the more ambitious leave,” McGee said. “This could explain the pay differential.”
Getting to the bottom of the “brain drain” theory may become a priority if policy-makers and Wisconsin taxpayers become concerned that investment in a topnotch state university system is not a good investment for the state.