Light at the End of the Tunnel

We've seen the worst, but it's not over. How do you stay on your economic feet?

Heather Mawhiney

Everyone knows the economy is bad and more and more people are finding themselves unemployed. The upside to the situation we’re in, however, is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But in the mean time, there are many resources available to help you get a job (yes, even in this economy) and prepare yourself to adapt to the changes the job market will be facing in the future.

“We’re in a recession and it’s a tight market all around,” said Scott Hodek, economist for the Eau Claire Job Center. “Eventually it will get better, though. Most economists are in agreement that we probably have seen the worst of it. We’re not seeing another Great Depression, but this recession, however, won’t have a quick recovery.”

Since last year, the unemployment rate across the nation has nearly doubled, rising from 5.2 percent in May 2008 to 9.1 percent in May 2009. The state of Wisconsin is doing a little better than the national average. Across the state, the unemployment rate rose from 4.2 percent in May 2008 to 8.7 percent in May 2009. The Chippewa Valley has been fortunate enough to be somewhat insulated from the high unemployment rates across the state, rising from 3.7 percent in May 2008 to 7.1 percent in May 2009, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

    As in every recession, the industries that dominate an area and the amount of diversity among those industries can greatly affect the rate of unemployment.

“The good news is that the Chippewa Valley has a very solid economy in general and is comparatively healthy,” said Matt Pronschinske, the Business Services Manager of the West Central Wisconsin Workforce Resource. “We’ve seen a scaling back of everything in general, but not a major blow to the economy like one major company closing that our economy is dependant on or a mass exodus of smaller companies.” 

But we’re hurting just like everyone else.

“One industry that always gets hit the hardest is manufacturing. They’re always more vulnerable in a downturn,” said Hodek. “In this recession, manufacturing items that are incorporated into housing are being hit especially hard, because of the housing market – no one’s buying or building. On the upside, this area has more manufacturers in the hi-tech industry and was, therefore, not being hit as hard, because of high exports. The rest of the world didn’t recede as fast as we did, so we were still exporting, buoying us for a while. But that’s hurting now, too.”

Unfortunately, our hi-tech manufacturers have experienced some mass layoffs this year. In March, 300 people were laid off from Hutchinson Technology, a computer storage device manufacturer, according to the WI DWD Office of Economic Advisors. Lorman Education Services laid off 61 people in February, and Reinhart retail group laid off 19.

Overall, in the Eau Claire metropolitan statistical area (covering both Eau Claire and Chippewa counties), the number employed in the goods producing industry, including manufacturing, construction, mining, and natural resources, has decreased by 11.7 percent since May 2008. But we’re doing a little better than the rest of the state. In Wisconsin, the goods-producing industry decreased by 12.6 percent since May 2008, according to the WI DWD.

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Other factors have played into insulating the Chippewa Valley as well. Industries that have remained more stable are education and health care – industries that have a lot of presence here. 

“The health care industry insulates an area, this area in particular, very well. We have a huge health care sector here with large employers such as Luther Midelfort and Sacred Heart Hospital, which has kept us from having as high unemployment rates as other counties around the state,” said Hodek. “Health care will always be in demand. When it comes down to saving your life, you may not want to pay for a procedure, but you will.”

The education and health services industry has remained fairly stable over the year, and the number employed actually increased by 2.1 percent, or 300 people, since May 2008, according to the WI DWD.

“Education has remained pretty solid. When people are out of work, they go back to school,” said Pronschinske. “Technical colleges and universities know it’s just short-term, though. They’re not expanding, but just operating within their current structures.”

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Of course, higher education is a great resource if you’re unemployed or looking to switch careers. UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, Chippewa Valley Technical College, and Globe University each have a wide variety of programs geared toward careers in health care, for example, among many others.

“Whatever your situation is, continuing education is at least worth researching,” said Jessica Witte, of UWEC’s career services. “Many people think going back to school isn’t right for them – they don’t have the time or can’t afford it. What they don’t realize is how varied class schedules are, with night and online classes, and how affordable it can be, especially after considering financial aid.”

If you have been laid off, though, and are just looking to get back on your feet, there are resources available for you, too.

“One resource for those who have been laid off is to go to their local job center,” said Pronschinske. “There is federal funding for people to go back to work or take classes. The job center is good for career exploration and networking as well.”

The next step is finding that job. Times are tough, but that doesn’t mean that jobs aren’t out there or that new businesses aren’t opening or relocating to the area.

“Most job markets are in decline right now around the state, but there are still jobs out there,” said Hodek. “The competition’s going to be a lot stiffer, though. You’ll be competing with people with college degrees, people with experience, people who are older, people who are younger, etc. You need to do something to set yourself apart from the crowd.”

There are many tools for finding a job (like the Smartt Network, job boards, and classifieds), but the best tool you can have when job searching is networking.

“Your best job resource is your network,” said Witte. “You need to go to events, join a group, take a class. Meet people and make connections. People often don’t realize how powerful or far-reaching their own network can be.”

It’s all about face time and showing your personality, rather than becoming just another résumé on the pile.

“There’s nothing wrong with using job search boards, but I would take different tactic and go door to door to companies that you do research on. You never know where it might lead you,” said Pronschinske. “There are places that aren’t posting jobs because they get flooded with applications. I would try to find a day to drive around, not just go through the mainstream of doing things online or faxing in a résumé, because you’ll become one of many. You need to draw attention to yourself – let people see you and shake your hand.”


The good news (finally) is that despite the economy being as it is, businesses are still opening or expanding in the area.

“There have been several projects that we’ve been working on,” said Mike Schatz, Economic Development Administrator for the City of Eau Claire. “Nestle, for example, is expanding, a project that will eventually create about 150 jobs. Also, Luther Hospital building another bed tower and there certainly will be more jobs associated with that. But these projects take a year or so to complete, so the jobs a ways off.”

And although nothing is official yet, there are some promising business prospects considering locating in Eau Claire, western Wisconsin’s regional center, said Schatz. Entrepreneurs also have several resources to consider when opening a new business. For example, downtown Eau Claire not only offers different loans and grants, but incentives like the Jump-Start competition to encourage businesses to open up downtown.

So where do we go from here? Economic experts agree that we’ve seen the worst of this recession, but it’s going to take a long time for us to dig ourselves out.

“First is was a real estate and the financial side of things that started this. We’ll come out of it in the same pattern, though slowly. It’s not going to happen over night,” said Pronschinske. “Eventually people will think they can retire and companies will promote and expand. I think in a year, we’ll be able to say we’re out of this. The economy is weak, but the foundation is solid – we have a lot to build on. There’s some good stuff on the horizon.”

Where the Jobs Are is sponsored by:

Chippewa Valley
Technical College

620 W. Clairemont Ave
Eau Claire, WI

Where the Jobs Are is sponsored by:

Chippewa Valley
Technical College

620 W. Clairemont Ave
Eau Claire, WI