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Wisconsin is coming for Minnesota’s millennials

Last month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill approving $6.8 million for an ad campaign that will highlight the perks of Wisconsin life for young people from other Midwestern states.

In Chicago, the economic development corporation found that some of millennials’ biggest pain points were the cost of living and Chicagoland commute times.
Courtesy of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

Hey Midwestern millennials, Wisconsin wants you. To move to Wisconsin.

Last month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill approving $6.8 million for efforts to attract workers, including an ad campaign that will highlight the perks of Wisconsin life in the hopes of attracting millennials from other Midwestern states.

The Badger State’s hoping to keep its economy chugging along by recruiting young people to settle there, as it faces low unemployment and an aging workforce.

Wisconsin and Minnesota are in pretty much the same boat that way. And that boat is headed into choppy waters. Both states have populations that aren’t growing particularly quickly.

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But Wisconsin might be worse off. Its median age is 39.1, compared to Minnesota’s 37.8, and its unemployment rate is even lower than Minnesota’s.

Most years, Minnesota gains a lot more Sconnies than Wisconsin gains Minnesotans.

Putting a dent in that might be a tall order.

Moving to Minnesota

In 2016, the most recent year of data available on state-to-state migration from the Internal Revenue Service, 7,360 households left Wisconsin for Minnesota. Just 6,318 left Minnesota for Wisconsin, leaving Minnesota with a net gain of more than 1,000 households from the Badger State.

That’s pretty much par for the course.

Net migration from Wisconsin to Minnesota, 2001-2016
Source: Internal Revenue Service

The exception was in the early 2000s, when the Twin Cities were rapidly suburbanizing. At that time, there was a lot of migration from the Twin Cities into western Wisconsin counties like Polk and Pierce, said David Egan-Robertson, a demographer at the University of Wisconsin Applied Population Laboratory.

But for the most part, the trend’s gone the other way.

Wisconsin lacks a major metro area quite like the Twin Cities or Chicago, both easily accessible from Wisconsin. Milwaukee, the state's biggest metropolis, has a population of about 1.6 million, compared to 3.6 million in the Twin Cities and 9.5 million in Chicago. Madison, Wisconsin’s second largest metro, has about 650,000 residents.

In recent years overall, Wisconsin has lost more population through migration than it’s gained, unlike Minnesota.

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Many young people who grow up in Wisconsin move to the Twin Cities or Chicago for job opportunities, or just to try life in a bigger city. “That’s a long-term pattern of young people wanting to move to a larger place, at least for a while,” Egan-Robertson said.

Though Milwaukee County has seen net in-migration of 25-to-34-year-olds, in a metro about half the size of the Twin Cities, “There just isn’t, in Milwaukee, the same level of job generation,” Egan-Robertson said.

A report out last week from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think-tank, highlighted that Wisconsin has lagged behind Minnesota in job growth, wage growth and income since 2010, among other things.

There are definitely jobs in Wisconsin that are open, though: Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was 2.9 percent in March, the most recent month of data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Minnesota’s was 3.2.

The ad campaign

Having so few workers available puts a crunch on employers, who are struggling to find enough people to fill jobs. That’s the message the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has been hearing the last few years from companies in the state, said Mark Maley, the organization’s public affairs and communications director.

“Like a lot of state economic development organizations, [Wisconsin’s] is best-known for providing incentives to companies to get them to come to Wisconsin and create jobs,” Maley said. “That’s still a big part of what we do, but I would say about a year and a half, two years ago, we started hearing more from companies concerned about workforce development: ‘If we build a new plant and we want to hire 200 people, will we be able to find 200 people?’”

It’s not just companies like Foxconn, the multinational electronics manufacturing company that's building a factory boosters say will bring 13,000 jobs to Racine County, that have this concern, but smaller companies, too, Maley said.

The economic development corporation got to work trying to figure out what it could do to help attract workers, including conducting a national study to discern people’s perceptions of Wisconsin.

“Pretty much every demographic, or every region of the state, the answer was the same: beer, cheese and the Packers,” Maley said. (Never change, Wisconsin.)

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“We’ll own it. We love all those things,” he added. But there are other things about Wisconsin that people don’t seem to know, like that UW-Madison is a top research institution. Or that it’s a leader in water technology, or that it has a sizable biohealth sector.

Courtesy of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation
The Chicago campaign strongly emphasized cheaper housing in Wisconsin.

“If we want people to think about locating to Wisconsin, we need to start by changing the perception of the state,” Maley said.

A first, $1 million campaign to do that launched in Chicago in January. In Chicago, the economic development corporation found that some of millennials’ biggest pain points were the cost of living and Chicagoland commute times (33 minutes, on average, compared to 19 in Madison and 21 in Milwaukee. For what it’s worth, Minneapolis’ is 21 minutes). So, ads on popular social media sites, on coasters at downtown bars, in health clubs and on public transportation, emphasize things like short commutes, affordability and the outdoors.

“The whole idea of the ad campaign is to change the perception, but also to really drive them to the website [, also part of the campaign],” Maley said. The website includes information about quality of life, health care, education, jobs, homes and other metrics that might help lure future cheeseheads. So far, Maley said, they’re meeting website traffic goals.

At a summit in November announcing the push for the marketing campaign, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested millennials in the Twin Cities and Detroit could be the audience for  the next campaign, but Maley said more market research needs to be done before the state picks its targets.

Minnesota, in some ways, is a natural fit: both the Twin Cities and Duluth are near the border and there’s already a lot of cross-migration. Maley expects the focus to be decided in the fall.

But the Twin Cities, in some ways, resemble, say, Milwaukee. So any ad campaign targeting Minneapolis-St. Paul would likely take a different tone than the Chicago one, Maley said.

Part of the $6.8 million Wisconsin legislative appropriation to attract workers will also be spent on a campaign to lure military veterans who are about to transition back into civilian life, and another effort, which kicks off in June, to reach graduates of Wisconsin colleges and universities who have moved away.

The idea, Maley said, is “Look, you went to UW-Madison for four years, you moved to San Francisco … we have good opportunities in Wisconsin, would you think about coming back?”

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A small big town

Phil Dedman had never even been to Eau Claire when he attended training for his job there a few years ago. A month later, he and his wife Dani, who are in their early 30s, went back to visit the area and decided they might like to move there.

There was just something about the college town of 68,000, 90 miles east of the Twin Cities at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. It was big enough to have an arts scene, but smaller and less dense than the Twin Cities.

Coming up on a year ago now, they made the move, when Phil was able to switch job locations from the downtown headquarters of the Minneapolis tech company he works for to its Eau Claire offices.

Some of the things that drew the Dedmans to Eau Claire are similar to the themes Wisconsin’s been highlighting to lure young professionals to Wisconsin.

For one thing, it’s much more affordable for them. With Dani caring for the couple’s sons, ages 6 and 3, the Dedmans had been a single-income family for awhile in the Twin Cities before they made the move to Wisconsin. It was tough to make it work.

They’re able to live much more comfortably on one income in Eau Claire, Dedman said, and they were even able to trade in their house in the northern Twin Cities exurb of Dayton for a great old house near the center of town in Eau Claire.

“We just bought a house, built in 1881, and literally it’s the best house I’ve ever owned. It’s a Colonial-Victorian hybrid, and we’re next door to a fantastic, historically-registered Victorian,” Dedman said.

There’s no more commuting headache, either. Most places Dedman needs to go, he can walk. And compared to when he was living in Dayton and busing to work to avoid a hellish drive, he’s spending seven minutes these days walking to or from work, compared to an hour and a half, one way, on the bus.

Finding good schools for the boys was another big factor in the couple’s decision to move — and so far, they’ve lived up to that, Dedman said. With maybe one exception.

“I guess one thing I’d love to see more here is diversity,” he said.

But while the perks made Eau Claire an easy sell, the family didn’t move for the Wisconsin aspect, Dedman said.

“We moved to Wisconsin for Eau Claire. As products of the northern [Twin Cities] suburbs, the appeal of a small big town was just overwhelming,” he said.