Wisconsin Wage Growth, Labor Force Participation Slowing in 2019

Wisconsin’s economic data demonstrates plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The state last year posted its best year of GDP growth since 2010, unemployment has regularly been at or below 3%, and the number of people working has been at or near record levels.

Wisconsin’s economy, however, tends to follow the trend of the national economy, which is now in its longest expansion on record. So is the state exceeding its growth expectations given the national environment, or are the record numbers the result of riding the country’s coattails?

The answer depends on the metric in question.

One area where Wisconsin has diverged from national trends is in labor force participation. Employers point to the state’s low unemployment rate as a reason for slower job growth, but Kurt Rankin, an economist and vice president with the PNC Financial Services Group, said the low rate is being sustained by labor force declines.

Since reaching its most recent peak of 68.5% in mid-2017, Wisconsin’s seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate has fallen 1.2 percentage points to 67.3% in May. The shift equates to more than 24,000 people leaving the state’s workforce.

An aging workforce and retiring baby boomers would seem to explain the decline, but Rankin said that is not the case nationally.

“Unless Wisconsin is bucking the national trend, which I doubt … older workers, by and large, are choosing to remain in the workforce,” he said.