News of the Day

Wisconsin Program Launched to Boost Productivity in Manufacturing

Targeting small and midsize manufacturers, three Wisconsin business organizations have launched an initiative to boost productivity in factories across the state.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Milwaukee 7 and Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership say the new program, called the Transformational Productivity Initiative, will identify factors that limit productivity growth and then work with companies to solve those problems.

The WEDC has awarded Milwaukee 7 a $190,000 matching grant to implement the program, and between five and 10 companies are being sought for a two-year trial period.

The Wisconsin business groups say they aim to develop a user-friendly set of diagnostic and assessment tools for productivity issues.

The tools will come from teams representing select manufacturers, Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and University of Wisconsin programs in Milwaukee, Stout and Madison.

“It’s a different, comprehensive approach that we haven’t seen anywhere else,” said Kelly Armstrong, the project’s lead for the WEDC.

“TPI is a long-term strategy directed at moving the needle on productivity in the aggregate, working with small and midsize manufacturers in a way that will ultimately drive wage and job growth in Wisconsin,” Armstrong said.

The productivity initiative is aimed at companies with fewer than 500 employees. “This initiative is critical if Wisconsin and the Milwaukee region are to remain globally competitive,” said Pat O’Brien, executive director of Milwaukee 7, an economic strategy group for the seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin.

In the next 30 days, companies will be chosen for the two-year trial period. They will be from various industries but must be manufacturers.

Applications are being accepted through the WEDC.

“What we will do is pick between five and 10 private companies that have volunteered to go through this process, at no charge to them, to be the pilot program,” Armstrong said. “The idea is to develop the (diagnostics) tools that can be used for small and midsize manufacturers across the state,” she added.

Obamacare Insurance Rates to Rise 36% in Wisconsin Next Year

Health insurance premiums on the Affordable Care Act exchange will go up an average of 36 percent in Wisconsin next year, but government subsidies will offset the increases for most people, a state official said Thursday.

A major reason for the stiff hikes is that President Donald Trump’s administration hasn’t said if it will continue certain payments to insurers, said J.P. Wieske, deputy commissioner of insurance.

The increases — and the loss of three national insurers in the state from healthcare.gov, affecting more than a third of the 216,000 residents who get insurance that way — also reflect instability in the market, Wieske said.

Too few young and healthy people are signing up for insurance on the exchange, part of what is known by some as Obamacare, making it risky for insurers who have lost $400 million from the business in the state over three years, he said.

“There’s some concern that we’re in a death spiral,” Wieske said. “The increases we’re seeing reflect the increased amount of risk that a smaller number of carriers are going to have to take on.”

Enrollment for individual coverage at healthcare.gov runs Nov. 1 to Dec. 15.

Molina Healthcare, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in Wisconsin and Health Tradition Health Plan said earlier this year they are leaving the exchange next year. About 75,000 people on those plans will need to select other insurance. To help stabilize the market, Wisconsin will consider seeking a waiver in 2019 to let the state set up its own system under the federal health care law, he said. Minnesota has done that, and Iowa is requesting permission.

Premiums next year will increase an average of 40 percent for so-called silver plans on the exchange in the state. About 90 percent of people with the coverage get subsidies that will also go up accordingly, so they won’t be directly impacted, Wieske said. Rates for bronze plans, which offer less coverage, will go up 21 percent. The cost for gold plans, which offer more coverage, will go up 19 percent. People buying those plans will have to pay more.

Officials Detail Trump Executive Order on Healthcare Coming Thursday

President Trump will sign an executive order on Thursday morning aimed at taking action on health care after Congress’s failure to repeal ObamaCare. The order will:

  • direct the Department of Labor to “modernize” rules to allow small employers to create association health plans, the source said. Small businesses will be able to band together if they are within the same state, in the same “line of business,” or are in the same trade association.
  • lift Obama administration limits on short-term health insurance plans, allowing the plans to last as long as 12 months and be renewed. The change to short-term health insurance could damage the stability of ObamaCare. The source said the new rules for short-term plans are where administration officials think the order will have the “most immediate impact.”
  • allow people to use tax-advantaged accounts known as Health Reimbursement Accounts to pay for their premiums.

Journeyman-to-Apprentice Bill to Get Vote Thursday

A state Senate panel plans to vote this week on a bill that would set the ratio of journeymen needed to oversee apprentices coming into construction strictly at one-to-one for all trades.

Current journeymen-to-apprentice ratios vary from trade to trade. For carpenters, for instance, the mandated ratio is already one-to-one when there is only one apprentice in a given class. But for every apprentice who joins after that, three more journeymen must be added.

Proponents of setting the ratios at one-to-one argue the change will eliminate an artificial barrier to recruitment and thus help combat the industry’s persistent labor shortage. Some contractors have complained that it is hard to find enough journeymen to meet the current requirements, especially as many older workers retire from the trades.

At a public hearing last week, several industry groups expressed reservations about the proposal. A lawyer representing Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – the biggest construction union in the state – warned that the bill seemed to give the state license to override collective-bargaining agreements reached between labor and management groups. Such authority, he warned, could run afoul of federal labor law.

If Bill 411 became law, state officials would not have to cede all their control over journeyman-to-apprentice ratios. Although losing their power to require more than one journeyman for each apprentice, they would still be able to increase the number of apprentices who could work under a single journeyman.

Should Senate Bill 411 receive a favorable recommendation on Thursday, it would next go to the full state Legislature.

EPA to Repeal Landmark Obama Climate Rule

The Trump administration on Tuesday will formally propose repealing Barack Obama’s landmark climate change rule for power plants, a key part of the U.S. commitment to reduce emissions under the Paris accord.

The rule was the centerpiece of Obama’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and show the rest of the world that the U.S., a top polluter, is committed to climate action. It aims to cut emissions from the electricity sector by 32 percent by 2030.

The EPA’s announcement is the first major step toward fulfilling a key campaign promise Trump made to repeal the climate rule that he’s called “stupid” and “job-killing.” Trump’s EPA argues that the agency overstepped, arguing it can only regulate pollution from individual plants and not sector-wide.

The EPA will open the door to replacing the rule with a weaker, more industry-friendly standard to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, though it did not promise to pursue a new regulation.

 

Microsoft to Help Expand Rural Broadband in Six States

Microsoft announced Thursday it is teaming up with communities in six states to invest in technology and related jobs in rural and smaller metropolitan areas. Microsoft has selected Appleton, Wisconsin as one of the six sites. The other communities will be announced later.

Company president Brad Smith launched the TechSpark program Thursday in Fargo, a metropolitan area of more than 200,000 people that includes a Microsoft campus with about 1,500 employees. Smith says the six communities are different by design and not all have a Microsoft presence. Smith says TechSpark is a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment to help teach computer science to students, expand rural broadband and help create and fill jobs, among other things. The other programs will be in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Microsoft planned to use “white space” technology, tapping buffer zones separating individual television channels in airwaves that could be cheaper than existing methods such as laying fiber-optic cable. The company had originally envisioned using it in the developing world, but shifted focus to the U.S. this summer.

“We are a very diverse country,” Smith said. “It’s important for us to learn more about how digital technology is changing in all different parts of the country. So we are working to be more present in more places.”

Smith said there are 23.4 million Americans living in rural communities who don’t have broadband coverage and the TechSpark program is going to focus on bring coverage to these six regions.

 

Wisconsin Bill Aims to Simplify Family and Medical Leave Laws

Three Republican legislators introduced a bill Thursday in an attempt to simplify Wisconsin laws on family and medical leave, according to a press release from the Legislature.

State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Reps. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, and Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, introduced the bill to clear up the distinctions between state law and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The sponsors identified confusions among businesses as the primary impetus for the bill.

In the bill, anyone covered under FMLA is excluded from state medical leave laws.

“As a former Human Resources executive, I have seen firsthand how Wisconsin’s family and medical leave laws and the federal FMLA together create an unnecessary regulatory burden for employers across our state. This legislation will ensure that Wisconsin employees are protected, while also simplifying an overly complex system for local employers,” Rohrkaste said in the release.

 

Foxconn chooses Mount Pleasant

Taiwanese technology company Foxconn plans to build its promised $10 billion manufacturing campus in the southwestern corner of Mount Pleasant, as was widely suspected, officials confirmed Wednesday.

“Foxconn Technology Group (Foxconn), the world’s largest electronics manufacturing services provider, will invest an estimated $10 billion to construct its Mount Pleasant campus, which will be located off of Interstate 94 between Highway 11 and Highway KR,” stated a press release issued Wednesday. “The manufacturing campus will be approximately 20 million square feet — by far the largest project in the state, and one of the largest manufacturing campuses in the world.”

According to the Foxconn news release, the Mount Pleasant campus will be the first in a series of world-class manufacturing facilities the company will be building in the United States to meet future needs for the latest in display technology components.

The new Mount Pleasant campus will consist of a multibillion dollar thin-film transistor liquid crystal display plant, a facility to package LCD modules, a skill-intensive facility focused on molding and tool-and-die processes, and an assembly operation to produce end-device units.

A map of the entire Foxconn project is comprised of three areas. Area one, where Foxconn will build its 20-million-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant, is the land between Interstate 94, highways H and KR and Braun Road.

Area two, solely for future expansion, is most of the land between Highway 11, I-94, Highway H and Braun Road.

Area three, for construction staging and where Foxconn suppliers are expected to set up operations, consists of all the land between Braun Road, Highway KR, 90th Street and Highway H.

SCOTUS Hears Wisconsin Redistricting Case

Wisconsin’s electoral maps were put to the test Tuesday morning during a tense session of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Gill v. Whitford is the court’s first significant test in years on partisan gerrymandering, or the idea of crafting district lines for the benefit of one party, and whether courts should police such practices.

Following the intensive hour of questioning, Wisconsin Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin sounded confident in the state’s case. “When you have the law on your side, that’s a good place to be going into the argument,” he told MacIver News Service Tuesday afternoon.

Defenders of Wisconsin’s redistricting plan also have history on their side – and, perhaps, standing. Tseytlin reminded the justices that the high court has never tossed out a map on the basis of partisan gerrymandering.

In 2004, the court narrowly determined it shouldn’t referee a Pennsylvania redistricting case, very similar to Wisconsin’s. But Justice Anthony Kennedy said at some point in the future a case so clearly partisan could rise to a judicable level – that is, meriting court review.

Liberals believe in their hearts the Wisconsin redistricting plan is that case. They won last year when a lower court panel of judges, in a 2-1 ruling, determined Wisconsin’s district maps ran afoul of the Constitution by putting Democrats at a distinct disadvantage. Liberals complain that the redrawn maps give Dems little chance of ever winning back the Legislature, which they lost in the Republican revolution of 2010.

William Whitford, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor emeritus and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, argues the state Assembly “bears no resemblance to its evenly split electorate.” He claims Republicans “wield legislative power unearned by their actual appeal to Wisconsin voters. This pro-Republican skew is no accident.”

 

WisConomy.com Offers Advanced Online Tools to Analyze Economic & Labor Data

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Ray Allen today announced the launch of the first phase of WisConomy.com, the state’s new online source for economic and labor market information. The site features powerful, state-of-the-art tools that deliver labor market data in new, engaging and understandable ways.

WisConomy streamlines access to labor market data and makes information easy to access and analyze. The site was created for everyone, from students and business owners to analysts and economic developers, and offers the ability to:

  • Easily find data through keyword or program title searches, reducing reliance on terms that are highly technical and less well-known.
  • Customize and download data in a variety of formats.
  • Quickly convert data to charts and tables that can be embedded in multi-media presentations and shared through a variety of platforms.
  • Explore a searchable database for basic information about Wisconsin employers, such as company location and employment size range.

WisConomy.com helps businesses research economic and labor data and make informed employment decisions. Tools enable employers to:

  • Create personalized reports to learn and share information about the local job market.
  • Examine wages and long-term projections by industry and occupation.
  • Help determine location and expansion plans.

DWD technical experts developed WisConomy as an in-house solution to replace WORKnet, a website launched by the agency in 2005. DWD will continue to make WORKnet available for a limited time, and WisConomy.com training opportunities will be scheduled in the coming weeks. DWD plans to launch future WisConomy enhancements, allowing the public to use login credentials to customize, save and automatically update desired data.

Access Wisconsin’s new economic and labor market information tools today at WisConomy.com