Labor and housing shortages hamper economic growth

BOSCOBEL – Local labor shortages came to a head over the July 4 holiday weekend at Boscobel’s Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF). The prison was so understaffed that Warden Gary Boughton had to work a few shifts in the housing unit over the weekend.

“We had it covered before the weekend,” he said. But last-minute sick leave has left staff strained. Boughton took half shifts on Saturday and Sunday to ensure no one was patrolling the accommodation alone, he said. “All I am is another set of eyes and ears.”

Among Boscobel’s main employers, similar stories are repeated. The labor shortage affecting the rest of the United States is also affecting local businesses.

The cafe-klatch explanation for the so-called big resignation is that “nobody wants to work anymore”. But the situation on the ground at Boscobel is more complicated.

Grant County’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low, while labor force participation is just as high, according to Tom Pethan, labor market economist covering southwestern Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Development Department. state labor. May’s unemployment rate was 2.3%, the seventh lowest among Wisconsin counties. “It’s the lowest number since 1990,” Pethan said.

“I don’t see a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, especially now with inflation,” said Ron Brisbois, executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Corporation. “We’ve never seen anything like this for unemployment or labor force participation.”


Among the factors impacting the local labor shortage are changes in Boscobel’s demographic dynamics, Pethan said. The population is decreasing and the percentage of people over 65 is increasing. In 2010, the city’s median age was 34 and 13% of the population was over 65, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). By 2020, the median age had risen to 44, and 20% of the population was over 65. “Typically, you see a rapid decline in labor pool participation after age 65,” Pethan said.

In other words, Boscobel must retain and recruit younger workers to solve the labor shortage. The main obstacle to this is the lack of housing.

Brisbois said his main concern right now is affordable housing with working-class wages. “Of course we need to attract new workers, but we just don’t have any housing for them, either rental or existing homes for sale,” he said. “Without housing, we’re not going to address the labor shortage.

Theresa Braudt, administrator of Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital & Clinics, echoed that impact. “I found it difficult to recruit people here because housing is a barrier,” she says.

bidding wars

Bobbi Jo Bomkamp-Drone, estate agent for Century 21 in Boscobel, is feeling the effects of the housing crisis firsthand. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything like it in this market,” she said.

One of his clients, approved for a loan backed by the Veterans Administration, searched for a full year before finding a home. “He just wanted a house for his family, and it took us a year of multiple offers, $20,000 and $30,000 more than the asking price. It makes it a lot harder when you’re fighting with all these other buyers,” she said.

The last three homes Bomkamp-Drone sold were for work-from-home professionals in Milwaukee, she said. She reports that these buyers, who present a cash offer after selling an existing home, are beating first-time home buyers with a conventional mortgage. “They can afford to come here and buy a $200,000 house here that would have cost Milwaukee $400,000. Our people cannot afford it.

Boscobel’s aging population compounds the problem. Nearly 60% of owner-occupied homes in the city are home to someone 55 or older, while 35% are occupied by someone 65 or older, according to the latest CSA.

“It’s a huge problem. Seniors can’t find anything to cut back on,” said Boscobel School District Administrator Lisa Wallin-Kapinus. She searched for accommodation for one of the school principals without success. “We can’t find anything, to buy or to rent. Instead, its teachers commute from neighboring communities. We travel from Oregon, Wisconsin, an hour and a half drive.

Statewide issue

The situation in Boscobel closely mirrors housing shortages throughout the state. A report commissioned by the Wisconsin Real Estate Association in 2019 traced the impairment back to the Great Recession of 2008. While the economy finally regained lost ground, the housing industry failed.

The report cites several factors, including lukewarm statewide efforts to develop and build new housing, rising construction costs, and zoning and regulations that favor larger lots and larger homes. dear. Today, ironically, labor shortages are making the problem worse.

“I’ve talked to contractors, and they can’t find people to build them because the labor market is so tight,” Brisbois said.

The overtime blues

At the WSPF, a chronic shortage of guards has resulted in long hours of voluntary and involuntary overtime to cover shifts. Open shifts are assigned by seniority to volunteers, as well as staff from other nearby prisons, according to the warden. When they run out of volunteers, supervisors “pre-order” staff, essentially involuntary overtime. It is common to end an eight-hour shift and be “ordered” to work an additional 8 consecutive hours.

In total, according to Boughton, that’s between 20 and 30 people working overtime every day for an average 1,000-hour week. The current vacancy rate at the prison is 35.2%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Other employers in the area are also struggling to fill vacancies. Town and Country Sanitation, for example, has implemented changes to garbage handling procedures, in part to increase efficiency to compensate for the lack of workers, according to owner Doug Enke, who spoke recently at the of a town hall forum.

The path to follow

There is no short-term fix for Boscobel’s labor and housing shortages, but there is hope for the near-term future.

The first of five new eight-unit apartment buildings is under construction between Highway 61 and Sanders Creek on the northwest side of Boscobel. These are multi-bedroom apartments designed for working families and will likely rent for around $1,000 per month. The city also recently purchased 10 vacant lots in the Pine Shores subdivision in hopes of enticing a developer to build single-family housing there.

Another initiative aims to stimulate workforce development. Last month, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College announced it had received a $2.9 million grant to help retrain workers and fill vacancies in the area, including Boscobel. The spending will be coordinated with local manufacturing companies and “will help companies train more than 500 employees, hire more than 300, and promote dozens of tenured workers over three years,” according to a news release announcing the grant.

“The key to solving this problem, in the long run, is education,” said Dennis Cooley, director of charger leadership at SW Tech. “The key to the future is that we talk to young people and let them know that they can find their dream job here in Southwest Wisconsin, and they can find it right now.”

Cooley said the grant could also help ease the housing crisis. “We talk about that too,” he said. “How do we build our training in building trades? There is an opportunity here, and we can create a new opportunity for entrepreneurs to step in. It’s already arrived.

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