Inside Wisconsin by Tom Still
Getting behind the numbers: Tech’s role in the Wisconsin economy
MADISON – Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are the holy trinity of the Wisconsin economy and may always be so, given the state’s rich traditions in all three sectors.
Technology increasingly drives each of those sectors, however, and is slowly building an impressive standing of its own in terms of the jobs and value it adds to the Wisconsin economy. A recent national report makes the case.
The 2017 “Cyberstates” report from CompTIA, the nation’s largest leading tech association, showed Wisconsin cracking the 100,000-job barrier in 2016 for the first time. The report, which draws upon a mix of public and private data, counted 101,542 state tech workers last year compared with 97,633 in 2015.
First, it’s important to define what constitutes a “tech worker:” Cyberstates counts them in two major ways. It includes all jobs within companies that are primarily tech businesses, as well as technology specialists found in other fields – including agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.
In Wisconsin, the leading categories of tech workers are computer systems analysts, software developers, software applications developers and computer-controlled machine tool operators. The latter directly relates to manufacturing.
The Cyberstates report does not include workers in the life sciences, such as biotechnology and medical devices. That’s another 30,000 or so Wisconsin workers, depending on how they are counted.
While Wisconsin ranked 20th nationally in tech employment, it was seventh among the states in percentage growth of tech workers (behind Utah, North Carolina, Michigan, Washington, Montana and California) and 15th in the raw number of tech workers added.
Wisconsin tech workers earned an average of $79,500 in 2016, reported Cyberstates, a figure 74 percent higher than the state’s overall average wage of $45,600. Wisconsin’s average tech wage was good for 35th among the states and within a cluster of a dozen or states roughly equal in tech wages. California, as might be expected, led a top-tier group of a half-dozen coastal states that skew the U.S. tech salary average.
Good news for women looking for tech jobs: Wisconsin ranked fifth in the ratio of female tech sector workers to male techies with 36.5 percent of the total tech workforce. That compares to 33.7 percent nationally.
Several other figures speak to the growth of the tech industry in Wisconsin – and run counter to reports that show Wisconsin at or near the bottom of the 50-state list for startup companies.
Wisconsin ranked 11th among the 50 Cyberstates in percentage growth of tech establishments and 15th in the actual total of new tech companies with 194. All but one of the top 14 states are larger than Wisconsin. It also ranked 25th in tech startups, a Cyberstates figure that suggests Wisconsin’s startup problem may well rest in other industry sectors.
The state’s tech-related gross state product now accounts for 5.1 percent of the Wisconsin economy, Cyberstates concluded. That’s good for 21st among the states in actual dollars and 29th in percentage terms, a solid standing given the size of the agriculture and manufacturing sectors in Wisconsin.
Total tech gross state product stood at $15.4 billion with roughly equal shares in tech manufacturing, telecom and internet services, software, engineering research and development and testing services.
The Cyberstates report correlates with other findings collected in January by the Tech Council. Those included the latest “State Technology and Science Index” from the Milken Institute, a national research group that studies 79 specific indicators within five larger categories every two years.
While Wisconsin didn’t crack into the top 10 in any of five major Milken groupings for 2016, it ranked between 17th and 38th in all five.
Building a more diverse, tech-based economy will reinforce Wisconsin’s traditional industries and create new clusters of excellence over time. It’s also essential to attracting and retaining the right workforce at a time when Wisconsin needs more talented workers of all descriptions.
Don’t expect the state economy’s Big Three to be displaced anytime soon, but the steady growth of the tech sector cannot be overlooked.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which is a member of CompTIA through the Tech Councils of North America. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.