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Tight labor market continued in Wisconsin in July, workforce agency reports

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner August 18, 2023

The number of Wisconsin residents working or looking for work rose in July and the number of jobs in the state hit a new record, the state labor department said Thursday.

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that a total of more than 3.1 million people were working or looking for work in July, and 3,043,600 were employed. The state’s labor force participation rate — the percentage of people 16 or older working or looking for work — rose to 65.5%, nearly three percentage points higher than for the U.S. as a whole.

The employment numbers are projected from a survey of households that includes questions about household members working or looking for work.

Based on a separate survey of employers, DWD projected that there were 3,007,200 nonfarm jobs in the state in July, another new record, said DWD’s chief economist, Dennis Winters, in a virtual media briefing Thursday.

While the state’s unemployment rate ticked up a fraction of a percentage point, to 2.6%, it remained close to a historic low, Winters said.  

New unemployment insurance claims rose slightly in July, but those, too, were at historic low levels, as were continuing unemployment insurance claims. 

“Anybody that does get laid off seems to find a job in pretty quick order,” said Winters, who added he saw nothing to suggest a major increase in joblessness in the near term.

In the latter half of 2020 and through 2021 and much of 2022, as Wisconsin was recovering from the early COVID-19 pandemic loss of jobs, Winters said there was a noticeable drop in part-time workers and in the number of workers holding second jobs.

“But that’s turned around a little bit,” he said, returning to employment patterns that the state saw before the start of the pandemic.

Winters said there’s been no change to alter the state’s longer term projections showing the number of workers in the state expected to flatten out in the coming decade and possibly decline. Aging Baby Boom generation workers have helped bolster the workforce, returning to work or staying on the job past retirement age, Winters said.

“If you’re 65 years old, you’ve only got so much tenure left in your work life,” he said. “But they have been working at higher rates than they have in the past.”

The continued tight labor market in Wisconsin showed up in a Wisconsin Builders Association report Thursday as well.

Wisconsin housing starts dropped 7% in the April-June 2023 second quarter from the Jan-March first quarter, the association announced. Housing starts were also down 7% for the first half of 2023 compared with the same period in 2022. 

The association said 3,103 new home permits were issued across the state in the second quarter, about 200 fewer than in the first quarter.

Even with the downturn, the homebuilding industry is “operating at or near capacity,” said Mike Howe, president of the Wisconsin Builders Association, and low housing inventory has kept demand from prospective homebuyers high.

Higher interest rates, difficulty in hiring skilled labor and the increased cost of building materials are all factors in the slight second-quarter downturn, said the builders association spokesperson, Alicia Naleid.

“Builders are still seeing demand even given the high interest rates because the inventory of existing homes is still very low, but they are at capacity because they just can’t find enough workers,” Naleid said.

Nonetheless, she added, the industry is still “well above pre-pandemic numbers.”

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