Like many smaller suburban and rural towns in Wisconsin, Fond du Lac is facing a shortage in labor.

As University of Wisconsin System students graduate and are tasked with finding employment, many look to large cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison for work.

It is no secret that these cities — despite their metropolitan allure — are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Fond du Lac is trying to redirect these young professionals and recent graduates away from large urban consumption centers and toward their own city.

Fond du Lac’s economic development officials — faced with the reality of an aging workforce, 25% of whom will be aged 65 or older in the next 10 years — recently created a Worker Relocation Incentive Program to attract professionals to move to the area. Economic problems caused by COVID-19 restrictions also contributed to the city’s decision to start the program.

The incentive offers several benefits in a tier system and pays up to $15,000 dollars in direct cash compensation. Workers who make $35,000 and lease a home for at least a year are eligible to receive $4,000. Those who make $65,000 dollars or more and purchase a home in Fond du Lac can get the maximum $15,000.

The program depends on local businesses participating, which are expected to provide the cash incentives upfront in exchange for 50% reimbursement from the town’s economic development agency.

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The jury is still out on how effective these programs are at getting people to move and whether they significantly bolster city development. But a similar program in Topeka, Kansas showed promising results in 2019, with 40 new workers moving to the city.

As many individuals see it now, the choice to move to a smaller town primarily depends on lower living prices.

In 2021, the median rent for a two bedroom apartment in Madison was $1,306, whereas in Fond du Lac it was $854. A high cash incentive could spur a significant migration to rural towns. Though, the ones Fond du Lac is offering may not be enough money when considering the imbalance in employment opportunities between metro areas and more rural towns.

The initiative could partially increase young professionals’ desires to live in Fond du Lac. The government is trying to invest in the local economy by bringing more employment and spending power to the area, potentially benefiting current residents.

Those current residents who might have already decided to move to the area before the program began, however, won’t directly receive any money. If the program doesn’t lead to a tangible economic boom in the area, it could anger these residents into moving to a larger nearby city.

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In other words, this program is high-stakes. 

Subsidization as a strategy for solving social problems is only successful when it has a clear goal within the local economy. But done too lazily — as to simply throw money at people — can keep the subsidy from reaching the service or entertainment industries most hurt by COVID-19 in Fond du Lac.

For recent graduates looking for employment, the benefits of moving to a town like Fond du Lac lie in its affordability. They won’t have direct connections to the local economy — like home ownership — and can contribute most of their incentive payments to savings or paying off debt.

Ultimately, the Fond du Lac subsidy is a bandage for a larger problem. Across the U.S., business development and population concentration is shifting away from rural areas and into expensive metro areas where economic bubbles exist.

Infrastructure is partly to blame for this harsh divide. Roads, broadband access and utilities in rural areas are in disrepair across the country, which is why President Biden is trying to push a two trillion dollar infrastructure deal through Congress.

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The pandemic has demonstrated that certain jobs do not require an office or for people to be in person to complete a majority of their job. That being said, a majority of the country’s labor can be done remotely.

Wisconsin’s young professionals — particularly students looking for an affordable start to their careers — should consider taking up Fond du Lac’s incentive program.

Until the federal government makes some larger changes to how it equalizes infrastructure development between smaller and larger cities, it is understandable that graduating students and young professionals still look to the big cities as an attractive starting point for their careers.