More people in Wisconsin are working than ever before, according to data released Thursday by the state’s Department of Workforce Development. 

The preliminary employment estimates, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, show the total number of employed Wisconsinites hit a record high of 3,059,300 in May as the state added 2,200 nonfarm jobs. 

The state’s labor force, the number of people who are either working or actively looking for work, has also grown for six consecutive months. The May estimate puts the number at 3,149,200, or 66.5% percent of the state’s total population. That’s the same percentage as in April, and well above the national labor force participation rate of 62.3%.

With 89,900 people unemployed, 600 more Wisconsinites were unemployed in May than in April. The unemployment rate ticked up to 2.9% from April’s 2.8%. Nationwide, the unemployment rate held steady at 3.6%. 

The report comes the day after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 0.75%, the largest one-time increase in nearly 30 years, in an effort to slow inflation, which hit 8.6% in May. The much-anticipated move has prompted fears of a recession and widespread layoffs, though the Fed has said it hopes to curtail inflation without triggering such consequences. 

Expert says unemployment will stay low

In a Thursday labor briefing with reporters, Department of Workforce Development chief economist Dennis Winters said he anticipates the state’s unemployment rate will remain near record lows “for the foreseeable future” as total employment grows and the labor force grows or holds steady.

The number of Wisconsinites submitting new unemployment claims, as well as the number of Wisconsinites continuing to receive unemployment benefits, not only fell below pre-pandemic levels but were also the lowest seen during this season since the mid-1970s, Winters said.

“We've got record high employment. We've got essentially record low unemployment. We've got nearly record low UI claims. GDP is growing. So this all sits pretty well for the state of the economy,” Winters said.

‘Looking for more bodies’

Still, the recovery has been uneven. Some industry sectors now employ more people than they did before the pandemic shut down much of Wisconsin’s economy. The professional and business services sector added 2,400 jobs in May, surpassing its February 2020 level. Because those jobs are key to so many businesses, Winters said, “that's usually good news as an indicator for an expanding economy going forward.”

Others are growing but still below their pre-pandemic numbers. The leisure and hospitality sector, which added 200 jobs in May and 30,300 jobs over the last year, is still about 13,300 jobs, or 5%, short of pre-pandemic numbers. Winters attributes that lag in part to the recurring surges in COVID cases, and to a decline in the number of people working part-time jobs and second jobs, as is the case for many in the hospitality industry.

But the issue isn’t unique to restaurants, bars and hotels. “Every industry is looking for more bodies, essentially — more people to put to work,” Winters said, noting that baby boomers left the workforce in droves during the pandemic. 

He’s seen companies begin offering a variety of shift lengths to accommodate workers’ preferences, while others have begun offering child care or even subsidized housing. “Some people are getting more creative and doing some out-of-the-box thinking, but it's gonna continue to be the case,” Winters said.

The Department of Workforce Development is trying to ease the “labor quantity challenge” by training people with skills gaps, including veterans and people with disabilities. Amy Pechacek, secretary-designee of the Department of Workforce Development, said in a press release that her department “is proud to support Wisconsin workers in finding a well-paying career in this competitive labor market, and stands ready to connect individuals and employers so that our economy can continue to thrive.” 

Winters agrees. “My little adage is just ‘Find every body we can and get everybody trained up with the skills that they need to contribute to the economy,” he said.

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