Our Metro Milwaukee Innovation DataTool tracks the region’s performance over the last decade and in relation to peer metro areas nationally on 17 indicators tied to innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. Below, we highlight several key findings from our 2022 DataTool update, including both longer-term and emerging areas of strength and weakness. We hope these findings help economic development leaders and the broader community understand how the region is progressing and set priorities for future advancement.
Metro Milwaukee is competitive with its national peers on a number of economic indicators, including a few for which the region ranks near the top among the metro areas we track. As described below, one of the region’s most notable longer-term strengths is its concentration of talent in key occupations associated with innovation.
Scientists and engineers help drive innovation through research and development activities. In 2021, metro Milwaukee had a higher concentration of scientists and engineers than all but two comparison metros included in our DataTool, even outpacing Austin, Texas – a national standout for economic growth.
Metro Milwaukee also performs well on technology talent, ranking fourth among our 11 comparison metro areas and well above the national average in its concentration of technology workers. This indicator tracks those employed in 50 occupations identified as technology workers by CompTIA in its national Cyberstates 2021 report.
Strengths (recent progress)
Educational attainment in metro Milwaukee is slowly but steadily increasing. Perhaps most notably, the share of the region’s adults (ages 25 and over) with bachelor’s degrees or higher increased by 7.4 percentage points between 2011 and 2021, which outpaced more than half of our comparison metros. In 2021, 39.2% of metro Milwaukee adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher, which was above the U.S. average.
The Census Bureau tracks business openings (births) and closures (deaths), which allows us to analyze net growth in the number of businesses over time. Metro Milwaukee stands out for the steady progress it has made on this indicator relative to our comparison metros, from having one of the lowest business birth-to-death ratios from 2010 to 2015, to being near the middle of the pack from 2016 to 2019, to ranking third of the 11 metros in 2020. Metro Milwaukee’s birth-to-death ratio was also even with the U.S. average in 2020.
Despite metro Milwaukee’s progress on this indicator relative to peer communities, it is important to note that business births and deaths have been about even for the last several years, leaving room for further improvement.
On a number of other measures, metro Milwaukee trails a majority of its peers. These findings show areas where improvement is possible and may be needed for metro Milwaukee to compete nationally.
One long-standing weakness of the region is venture capital (VC) investing. VC investments typically support startup companies with strong potential for growth. While VC investing is highly concentrated in a small number of metro areas on the coasts, metro Milwaukee trails even most of its Midwestern peers and has been near the bottom on this indicator for many years.
On a per-capita basis, metro Milwaukee continued to attract less in venture capital (VC) investment in 2021 than most of the comparison metros. However, the region saw its greatest VC investment total ($53 million) in 2021 and moved up one spot in the rankings in per-capita investment from 10th of 11 in 2020 to 9th in 2021. Between 2019 and 2021, the average size of VC deals in metro Milwaukee ($3.8 million) also ranked 9th, which was an improvement from previous years.
Until recently, metro Milwaukee was competitive with its peers in its per-employee gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all finished goods and services produced within an area. The region’s productivity has slid, however, and it now ranks 10th among the 11 comparison metros on this indicator. Since 2010, metro Milwaukee’s GDP has increased at a slower pace than in all 10 comparison metros and the nation.
Weaknesses (recent decline)
Metro Milwaukee is trending in the wrong direction on several indicators, including global exports. The value of the region’s global exports per employee ($8,510) is lower than for many peer metros and the U.S. average, but the more troubling trend is the region’s steady decline on this metric over the last decade.
Adjusted for inflation, the value of metro Milwaukee’s global exports was 27.1% lower in 2020 than in 2010. Only three comparison metros saw the real value of their global exports decline faster than metro Milwaukee during that period.
Perhaps the primary goal of economic development efforts is to raise the incomes of area residents. While the median income of metro Milwaukee households has increased modestly over the last 10 years, it has grown at a slower pace than in all but two of our comparison metro areas. In 2019, metro Milwaukee’s median household income was slightly above than the national average, whereas in 2021, it was slightly below.