For 30 years, Wisconsin’s Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC) has worked to foster local business and entrepreneurial growth. Just one of its recent achievements has been the establishment of new “talent pipelines” between businesses and schools to improve future labor prospects.
The skills gap has grown to be an overwhelming challenge throughout the United States, but the Chippewa County EDC has made strides with an approach that focuses on the long term – working to inform students about the advantages of a career in the skilled trades, and all the opportunities that taking this path will lead to.
“When we look at Chippewa County we continue to see growth,” says Charlie Walker, President and CEO of the Chippewa County CCEDC. “That’s a credit to us, knowing that there is a tight labor market and setting up talent pipelines for future labor has helped. I think our existing businesses, and those companies looking to solve their talent problems, have gravitated to the Chippewa Valley because those pipelines have been established.”
The CCEDC collaborates with local school districts, the Chippewa Valley Youth Apprenticeship program, Youth Build, Chippewa Valley Technical College, and local Chambers of Commerce to promote the trades as a worthwhile career path. In concert with these partners, CCEDC is also working with the State of Wisconsin to support a platform called “Inspire Connections.” This is an approach to early career development that enables every student in the state, and particularly in Chippewa County, to start integrating career exploration into their curriculum.
Further, the CCEDC understands that in order to build effective communication into these talent pipelines, people from all sides need to be involved. Teachers, school counselors, and representatives from local manufacturing companies have all been brought together in briefings and discussions to ensure that a pro-manufacturing/trade career message eventually reaches the students and is fully grasped and taken on board by those who bring it.
Through CCEDC’s programs and outreach, teachers and counselors can take what they learn about the labor and talent needs of manufacturing companies and help students thoroughly understand the advantages these careers offer.
Throughout the year, the organization holds events designed to help further familiarize students with manufacturing and other trades. “In essence, we are dispelling that myth that manufacturing is dirty, or dangerous, or dumb. Today’s advanced manufacturing, especially in the Chippewa Valley, is exciting and for over five years now we have been highlighting the pay advantages and early career entrance with less student debt. Local companies see that as a good thing, putting a systematic program in place that helps to keep talent in the Chippewa Valley.”
This focus on developing a future labor force and solidifying talent pipelines is one of the biggest reasons that major employers continue to expand in Chippewa County. Another important aspect is that the CCEDC continues to invest in business diversification by making business site selection decisions as painless as possible.
The organization was one of the first in the state of Wisconsin to recognize and develop a “Sites That Are Ready” (STAR) Program. In 2007, CCEDC built on that and advanced the Lake Wissota Business Park to a “Certified Shovel-Ready” Program, designated by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Xcel Energy. Having a Certified Shovel-Ready site to develop means that permitting is fast tracked and major due diligence has been completed, which can shave two to three months off the time-to-completion of a construction project.
This is significant in the Chippewa Valley where a build can be interrupted by the winter season. Building on a Certified Shovel-Ready site significantly reduces expenses and the possibility of unexpected delays.
Finally, the CCEDC established a policy to help existing businesses grow and expand. Hence, it implemented the Business Expansion And Retention (BEAR) program. As Walker says, “In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, every community needs a BEAR, because the majority of jobs are created by existing local companies. And that’s where an economic development program can find its honey.”
The BEAR program has been successful because the way its activities are structured helps the CCEDC itself fully understand the needs of local businesses. “We visit 40 economic base companies a year. We have established a mentoring program for them and education networking programs to help them solve some of the issues they might have. For instance, we’re helping some of our existing businesses navigate the export tariff issues more effectively,” he says.
The acquisition of talented staff is as important and challenging for Chippewa County businesses as it is for companies anywhere, but in Chippewa County, companies get some significant assistance from the CCEDC.
When a key position in a company becomes available and a talented prospect is offered the job, a member of the CCEDC will frequently be deputed to reach out to that person. The CCEDC representative will explain the attractions and advantages of living in the Chippewa Valley and help get them connected and settled within the community.
“We’re able to hand-hold them, give them a tour, and connect them with the right areas that might be their passion,” Walker says. “We think that helps reinforce their decision to come to the Chippewa Valley.” Acquiring top level talent can be challenging for any company, but the Chippewa region has a lot to offer and the CCEDC has made it a priority to help its businesses promote the region to these prospects.
Finally, one of the most important aspects of the BEAR program is cost reduction and gap financing. By helping companies understand the kinds of available funding programs and financial options, the CCEDC helps many local businesses get the financing they need for expansion.
All these economic development program approaches have brought the CCEDC solid success. In 2018/2019 alone, Chippewa County in Western Wisconsin saw significant development. German-based global logistics company DHL Real Estate Solutions, broke ground on a $10 million distribution facility in the area. Nordson EDI is just completing an $18 million new world headquarters and modern manufacturing-facility expansion. VES Environmental Solutions has announced plans to build a new $9 million corporate office and R&D facility. Catalytic Combustion Corporation, an emission control technology company, is on its third expansion. Advanced Laser, a contract precision metals manufacturer, is currently in expansion mode. Charter Nex Films, a manufacturer of plastic films for a wide variety of high-performance packaging applications is also considering expanding. Additionally, TTM Technologies, Inc. has acquired i3 Electronics, Inc., moving those operations to Chippewa Falls. Bioenergy facility Ace Ethanol is just completing the construction of the first D3MAX facility in Chippewa County and is among the first ethanol plants in the nation to use the patented D3MAX technology and integrate it with its existing corn dry mill. Just recently, Belgium-based company Drylock Technologies celebrated the completion of their new $30 million USA world headquarters in Chippewa County.
By never deviating from the plan to help local businesses chart the best possible course for growth, the Chippewa County EDC’s BEAR program has been highly successful.
Beyond helping existing businesses, the CCEDC is also committed to providing guidance to entrepreneurs. Three mentorship programs have been established to coach entrepreneurs from the Chippewa Valley region as they strive for success in their business endeavors.
“We help entrepreneurs prepare for their pitches,” says Walker. “We’re seeing quite a few of them get some equity and investment success in Madison and the Twin Cities area. We’re really proud that we’ve been able to position them. In fact, we recently helped an entrepreneurial client with a pitch and they received a substantial investment from a firm in New York.”
Another area of focus for the organization is in housing development. Chippewa County has one opportunity zone available. This is a designation that was introduced by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that allows for some investments in lower income areas to have tax advantages. The CCEDC has marketed its opportunity zone to more than 70 opportunity funds and is experiencing elevated interest in the development of those areas.
As of the present, many developers have investigated construction projects geared toward talent and workforce housing. “We are on a mission to work with these developers to take advantage of our opportunity zone,” Walker says. “We expect this program to help solve some of our tight housing market.”
For the Chippewa County EDC, economic development has never been about simply attracting new businesses to the county. It is a holistic approach that brings together and employs a wide range of economic building blocks and incentives.
In Chippewa, this has meant establishing pipelines that connect businesses to future talent, building programs that foster growth and expansion for existing businesses, and helping to guide new entrepreneurs on their path to success. But by taking the time to understand the needs of its existing businesses, and working to meet those needs, the organization has also created the kind of positive climate that attracts new business and helps it thrive.
The Chippewa Valley region was recently rated among the top 20 places in the nation where millennials want to live. “That’s because of the quality of life, the outdoor activities, the amenities, and the culture that’s really been reinforced,” says Walker.
Chippewa County is a wonderful place to live, and the CCEDC is making it an equally wonderful place to work.