MILWAUKEE (AP) - Thousands of 20-somethings are being courted at workshops, panel discussions and social events in Milwaukee this week by dozens of businesses and civic groups anxious to attract top talent to a city often associated with Rust Belt decay and overshadowed by Chicago.
It's the city's second annual Young Professional Week, aimed at convincing Millennials that Milwaukee is as culturally cool as Austin, Texas, and as commercially innovative as Seattle. A Tuesday night showcase at Discovery World, a museum and science center on the shore of Lake Michigan, began with Badger Meter CEO Rich Meeusen laying out an evangelical vision of Milwaukee as a center for research and development in freshwater science. A band, drinks and appetizers greeted young professionals as they emerged from the auditorium, and they were encouraged to explore the museum, where they could touch fish in shallow aquariums, silkscreen T-shirts and record on video their thoughts on the lake.
The goal is to keep engineers, accountants and others with desirable skills in the community and attract others to it. Some of the city's most visible corporate leaders say such efforts are needed because Millennials, generally considered those born between 1980 and 2000, are more likely than older generations to base their career decisions on where they want to live and quality of life. Some say this is true despite relatively high unemployment among Millennials, both nationally and in the Milwaukee area.
Others, however, say the biggest draw cities can offer young workers are good-paying jobs suited to their skills, and those are still in short supply in southeast Wisconsin.
Young Professional Week - or YPWeek in Twitter lingo - is organized by NEWaukee, a company that evolved from a meetup started by some friends looking to broaden their post-college networks. Its spokeswoman, Angela Damiani, 27, is a Californian who moved to Milwaukee after her parents relocated while she was in college. She has become a vocal booster of the city's arts scene, lakefront, restaurants and rapidly growing roster of community groups populated by her generation.
As one example, she points to MKEBKE, a bicycling group perhaps best known for organizing nighttime rides by people wearing only underwear. But she also touts WGIRLS Milwaukee, which works to help underprivileged women and children.
"Here you have a tremendous access to anything you want," she says. "If you want to be involved in your local government, you can get a meeting with an alderman in a matter of days."
Local executives, from Will Ruch, the CEO of the marketing firm Versant, to Meeusen, whose company makes water meters used by utility companies, are no less effusive about the city and its opportunities. Spreenkler partner Steve Glynn, whose company also evolved from a meetup, rattles off a list of new business centers - Hudson Business Lounge, Bucketworks, OPEN MiKE - that combine work space with networking and social opportunities in an effort to attract young entrepreneurs downtown.
Meeusen says the problem is getting smart, skilled young workers to take advantage of the opportunities. His company needs more engineers, along with skilled tradesmen such as welders and machine operators.
"Seattle definitely has an image as an exciting place for young professional people," he said. In contrast, Milwaukee and other Rust Belt cities that were once manufacturing centers "took a hit over the decades."
But others dispute Meeusen's claim that the city lacks skilled workers. Marc Levine, a history professor and founding director of the Center for Economic Development at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, cites data showing large numbers of college graduates are underemployed, working as bartenders and in retail sales. Even Millennials with high-value degrees, such as engineering or accounting, can face 8 percent or 9 percent unemployment, Levine said.
"One can tout Milwaukee as a cool city, but that's going to do nothing to retain workers until the economy generates opportunities," he said.
Chris Layden, 29, an executive at ManpowerGroup's Experis, carved a middle ground between Meeusen and Levine, pointing to his own experience. Originally from Milwaukee, he went to work for Manpower in Boston after college. He was interested in coming back to Milwaukee, but what ultimately brought him back was his specific job.
"It's all about the opportunity," Layden said.
That was true for Vanessa Allen too. The 32-year-old researcher at the Public Policy Forum said she considered returning to Chicago, staying in Madison or moving to Milwaukee after finishing her master's degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was keen on Milwaukee, with its access to the lake, but the deciding factor was good job offers, first from Milwaukee County and later from her current employer.
"I feel like the work I do has value," Allen said, "and I can study issues and work on issues that would really help advance Milwaukee."
Maria Van Hoorn, 27,
will soon be making a similar decision. A graduate student in public policy at Marquette University, she said she has family in Milwaukee and both she and her husband, Tom, "feel like there's a fun energy here."
Both have been attending YPWeek, and Van Hoorn said her husband, who works for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, was particularly excited about Milwaukee's growing focus on water research. She's interested in the city's public policy issues.
"I'd really like to stay," Van Hoorn said. But, she added, "It's going to depend on the job market largely for me, because his job is pretty flexible within the state."
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