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Milwaukee’s Surprising Jobs Potential in the Creative Industries

A new study finds depth and breadth of creative ventures, but little recognition

Jan. 26, 2011
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Milwaukee is known for our beer, our manufacturing might, our motorcycles and, most recently, for our water industry.

But a theme running through those industries is our creativity, built on generations of skilled, hardworking artisans and craftsmen and -women.

That creative thread is being highlighted by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee, which released a study last week on southeastern Wisconsin’s surprising jobs potential in the creative industries.

Not only does the region’s creativity reflect our past, but it also could lead to greater global competitiveness in the future.

The study, which was commissioned by the Cultural Alliance and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was conducted by Mt. Auburn Associates, which has analyzed the economic impact of the creative industry around the world.

When the study was released with much fanfare last week, Mt. Auburn researcher Michael Kane called the region’s creative depth and breadth “absolutely remarkable” and encouraged policy-makers to think of our creative industries as “one element in a diversified portfolio” that can be marketed to other regions and countries to bring revenue to the area.

“Southeast Wisconsin’s economy and prosperity will depend less on how much it produces and more on what it produces, less on its cost of living and more on quality of living, less on its workers’ skills and more on its people’s talents, less on corporate identities and more on entrepreneurial energies,” the report concluded. “Thus, prosperity will result from creativity that, directly and indirectly, produces employment, makes other sectors more competitive, contributes to making the region more desirable, makes people more innovative, and recognizes and rewards the talent that may lie outside the mainstream career pathways.”

More specifically, Mt. Auburn’s researchers found:

  • More than 66,700 people are employed in the creative industries in southeast Wisconsin, whether they’re creative workers in creative enterprises, creative workers in other enterprises (such as a musician in a church), or a business or support worker in a creative enterprise (such as an accountant for an arts group), or a free-lancer

  • More than 49,000 people were employed in the region’s creative enterprises, which exceeds the number of people employed in education (36,451), water businesses (20,000) or food and beverage manufacturing (14,700)

  • The Milwaukee region employs more creatives as a percentage of total employment—4.2%—than Wisconsin as a whole (3.6%) or the national average (3.7%)

  • With almost 23,000 people working in the design field, designers make up about half (46%) of those who are employed in the local creative sector, and earn 59% of its wages

  • In 2009, about $2 billion in wages were earned by the region’s creative workers

‘A Maker Economy’

So what’s so special about the Milwaukee area’s creativity?

It isn’t just about the visual or performing arts, although they are a vital element. Milwaukee’s creative energy is very practical and pragmatic and an important factor in the region’s manufacturing economy.

“We’re a maker economy,” said Christine Harris, head of the Cultural Alliance.

Product design is an integral part of our area’s most iconic products and images. Think of the "rolling sculpture" of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the distinctive shape and color of your average beer bottle, the functionality of GE Healthcare’s medical devices, Faythe Levine’s do-it-yourself “Handmade Nation,” and the elegance of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition, which quickly became the symbol of the city.

Milwaukee was even home to one of the nation’s first industrial designers, Brooks Stevens, whose designs range from the model for Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Miller Brewing’s logo to engines for Briggs & Stratton and Outboard Marine.

Ironically, the importance of product design is relatively unappreciated by the area’s manufacturers, Mt. Auburn’s researchers found. They urged the region's manufacturers to look toward product design—and not lower cost—to increase their global competitiveness.

“[Manufacturers’] best chance for its employers to withstand the global cost-based competition will be to be more creative, to use design in ways that distinguish and differentiate its products, and to make them more desirable because they appeal to customers in ways that mass-produced products cannot—something the region’s most successful companies have been doing for decades.”

Harris also stressed the need to train new product designers and encourage them to stay in southeastern Wisconsin. The only schools in the state that offer a degree in industrial design are the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD).

Making Local Connections

Harris also wants local businesses to hire locally. The report noted that the links between businesses and creative workers—especially designers—are very weak and that local employers hire firms from other areas for their creative needs.

To that end, the Cultural Alliance will launch a creative services hub and job bank in March to allow firms and workers to connect locally. (For more information, go to www.creativityworksmke.com.)

Harris also wants to strengthen creative workers’ business skills as well as fund more microgrants for entrepreneurs with good ideas.

Also important is improving creative skills training throughout the educational system. As the report noted, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has severely cut back its arts programs. “K-8 schools, for example, were once required to have at least half-time teachers for both art and music, but now require only 0.1 [art and music] teachers per school,” and career and technical education in the high schools offer no career programs for creative occupations.

But reframing arts education as “creativity education” may encourage policy-makers to restore the arts. Strengthening the arts within MPS will also help Milwaukee's black and Latino students—who comprise the majority of MPS students—become more competitive with their suburban peers in a job market that values creativity.

Harris also said that community support for smaller performing arts groups is vital to the region’s creative workers and to attract residents—especially young professionals—to the region.

“I think part of the [art community’s] sustainability is not cutting out the edge stuff and the small stuff because we need to have that mix, that continuum,” Harris said.


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