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Wisconsin: Maintaining Stability through Exports and Emerging Industries

Oct/Nov 09
Despite Wisconsin's fairly diverse economic base heavily grounded in manufacturing, during this recession, "we're taking a hit like a lot of other states," says Dennis Winters, Wisconsin's chief economist. "But we've been buffered. The shining light in all of this in the healthcare field; you'll find that to be true in most other parts of the country as well." He says Wisconsin is known to be able to hold the middle ground during nationwide economic swings: "It doesn't fly as high when things are booming and it doesn't fall down as low when the bottom drops out."  

In August, Winters used his official state blog to talk about Wisconsin's comparatives through June 2009. Among his findings: the state took the number-one position in the nation for its share - 16 percent - of total jobs employed in manufacturing. "Large manufacturing job losses in Indiana (mostly auto related) yielded the top slot to Wisconsin," he wrote.

Regarding unemployment, the state's seasonally adjusted rate was 9 percent (compared to 9.5 percent for total U.S.), while its seasonally unadjusted rate was 9.2 percent (9.7 percent for total U.S.). Winters also reported that both this unadjusted employment rate and the year-to-year percentage change in total non-farm job losses (-4.2 percent) were below the rates reported by the major upper Midwest manufacturing states.

Wisconsin's role as a leader in the development and manufacture of renewable energy products got a huge boost in September with the opening of the new 180,000-square-foot Cardinal Solar Technologies facility in Mazomanie. Workers here will grind, drill, and temper two types of glass for use in photovoltaic solar panels. At full capacity, it,s expected to produce 64 million square feet of tempered glass each year. Also in September, We Energies proposed to build a $250 million biomass-fueled power plant at the Domtar paper mill in Rothschild. Designed to improve the facility's efficiency and generate electricity, it would use local wood, forest, and sawmill waste to produce steam and generate electricity in a co-generation process. If the company's application to develop the plant is approved, it should be up and running in 2013.

Also in alternative energy, according to Winters, a number of established manufacturers - particularly in the northeastern and southeastern sections of the state - have used their existing expertise and machinery to venture into a new industry: wind turbine manufacturing. "One of our advantages is that it's a short haul to key wind gradients, like those found in the middle of Lake Michigan, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and other open plains and states," he says

Many Wisconsin businesses produce heavy equipment and manufacturing components that are sold to Asian companies. "We're hoping the export side of manufacturing picks up soon," says Winters. "That's already starting to happen with exports to China."

Optimism is also riding high with senior executives at information technology, biotechnology, medical device, advanced manufacturing, and clean technology companies in the state. Forty-five percent of those responding to the first Tech Leaders Survey - conducted June 23 to July 6, 2009 - predicted the state's economy will improve during the next year. More telling: Nearly 75 percent  of these executives rated the overall prospects for their own companies as "good" or "excellent."

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