Milwaukee CEOs Count On Legacy-Industry Challenges To Lure Tech Workers

The new MKE Tech Hub Coalition aims to double the city's tech-worker population to 150,000 from about 75,000 now by 2025.

A handful of powerful business leaders in Milwaukee have coalesced around the goal of advancing a digital-tech-oriented transformation of one of America’s most industrially oriented cities. They’ll be closely watched by business and government leaders in other heartland outposts who all covet pieces of the software-based economy that has been mostly developed on the East and West coasts.

Led by Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske, these leaders have formally launched the MKE Tech Hub Coalition with the goal of doubling the number of tech workers in the area by 2025. The other huge Milwaukee-based companies helping to establish the coalition are Rockwell Automation, Johnson Controls and Kohl’s, while participants Accenture and Advocate Aurora Health are other significant employers in the area. They’ve collectively committed more than $5 million to begin gaining traction for boosting Milwaukee’s tech-worker population to 150,000 from about 75,000 now by 2025.

“That goal isn’t just sort of blue-sky and double some [random] number,” Schlifske told Chief Executive. “Demand for these tech workers is real on behalf of each company that is a part of [the MKE Tech Hub Coalition].”

Key to the coalition’s strategy is to position and promote one of the buckles of the old Rust Belt as a new-era opportunity for tech workers to apply their digital expertise to legacy-industry challenges and problems, rather than just writing another app for teenagers.

“We’re a diverse group, in fintech, e-commerce, automation and health care and financial services,” Schlifske noted. “So all of the work going on at our companies isn’t just classic Silicon Valley kind of stuff—it’s more prominent, innovative stuff. These really are a series of companies that are building out our own tech platforms, and I do think we have things to offer that are different from Silicon Valley.”

One insight that the builders of the MKE Tech Hub Coalition have gleaned is that “many tech people are classic engineers who just want to solve problems, and we have interesting challenges in Milwaukee companies for where things are going. They may not be creating the latest app for the iPhone, but think about our tech challenges: These are big, challenging, fun problems to solve for engineering types.”

Yet the tech-hub initiative “isn’t some sort of hail mary for us to survive,” Schlifske stressed, noting the number of Fortune 500 companies and other major corporate entities headquartered in Wisconsin’s major metro area. “For Northwestern Mutual, for instance, it’s about staying relevant for the next generation of employees and [insurance] policy owners.”

The formal launch of the tech hub follows another Schlifske-led effort last year which involved the establishment of venture funds to promote the startup community in Milwaukee.

Schlifske conceded that, like other industrial cities in the middle of the country, Milwaukee does have “some image issues that we need to overcome a bit. But when we bring people here, Milwaukee is getting a nice reputation as a livable city, not some backwater place.” He noted, for example, that the Democratic Party plans to hold its 2020 presidential convention in Milwaukee next year. “I think the city is way past its Rust Belt image.”

Also, in an advantage that Milwaukee shares with other cities in flyover country, the cost of living is significantly lower than on either coast. “It’s cheaper and easier for people to live here than in Boston or Silicon Valley,” Schlifske said. “One of our CEOs told me they recently hired a digital vice president from Microsoft who told him, ‘I can either own my own home or send my kids to a private school [in Milwaukee] or both,’ though not in California. And in Milwaukee we even have great public schools.”