The east and west coasts have historically drawn many Midwesterners with promises of excitement and career success. But with the big coastal cities’ increase in cost of living combined with millennials’ enormous levels of student debt, members of the most altruistic and purpose-driven generation are getting creative and forging their own paths to pursue their passions. And for those wanting to skip the trials and tribulations of the big city and jump straight into making an impact on their careers and communities, the Midwest is primed and ready to welcome our generation.

With shifting industries and changes in the workforce, the need for Wisconsin to reimagine and reinterpret its future landscape is more present than ever. The next generation of Wisconsinites, similarly to their coastal counterparts, have a restless drive to invent, a sense of pride in their work, and fervor to create. But there’s a keen difference between the two regions–Midwestern millennials, versus coastal millennials, achieve their goals faster, thanks to the lower barrier of entry. This determination makes Wisconsin a leader in global industries and quality of life.

The clearest example of this is YPWeek, a week-long conference of discovery, adventure, and conversations about the issues that matter among young professionals in Wisconsin. Every April, YPWeek brings together community leaders in purposefully chosen locations representing unique cultural assets for meaningful learning and social interaction.

NEWaukee created the nation’s first YPWeek in 2012 as a simple showcase of Milwaukee’s offerings for young professionals eager to establish their lives in the city. Based upon the event’s early successes, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation enlisted NEWaukee’s expertise to expand the initiative statewide, recognizing a need to link our state’s rural, suburban, and urban communities.

Through collaboration with dozens of partners from across the state, NEWaukee has forged the nation’s largest and strongest statewide network of young professionals. This year, YPWeek included nearly 30 communities planning hundreds of events throughout Wisconsin with almost 19,000 participants. Over time, this network has grown from a collection of independent young professionals to include economic development professionals, municipal leaders as well as young community members. It is a reflection of this generation, willing to work across county lines as a united force concerned about the future of this state.

The young professional organization framework for millennial engagement can be found in both large and small towns. In the last five years, NEWaukee has studied the effectiveness of these programs as it relates to talent attraction and retention as well as their potential to demonstrate new ways for civic and community engagement for the next generation of workforce. What follows in this report are a variety of insights as it relates to the status of Wisconsin’s talent attraction, engagement, and retention needs and how young professional organizations can support those efforts, if utilized to their full potential.

The Current YP Crossroads
The pressing demand to fill the one hundred thousand open jobs in Wisconsin is felt in all corners of the state. Compounding that issue is the historically low 2.8 percent unemployment rate and the fact that 85% of all UW System graduates remain in Wisconsin after they leave school and 60% of all college graduates now living in Wisconsin were also born in Wisconsin, the eighth highest percentage in the nation. Currently, there are simply not enough qualified people here and as the economy grows, the demand for new talent increases. The antidote often offered for this issue is to brand and market the state in new ways. However, the younger generations respond to experiences over traditional advertising campaigns, especially when it comes to major life decisions like where to work and live. YPWeek has sought to address this head-on by giving the next generation hands-on experiences with what Wisconsin has to offer.

According to Brandi Cummings, president of Y-Link in Kenosha, ”The YPWeek network showcases what is fantastic about being young in Wisconsin while also providing the momentum for moving in the direction we need to to make our communities even more desirable for the next generation to live and work.

Having the opportunity to work with a statewide network of leaders with similar passions, experiences, and goals not only inspires me to do greater things in my community but encourages me to rethink how I look at our state as a whole. Instead of traveling across the state line for vacations or entertainment I find myself seeking opportunities in Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, or Viroqua – opportunities I may have overlooked previously. Learning from my peers about how they create platforms for positive change and growth pushes me to make a more significant impact in my community. Using this network as a resource for training, guidance, and feedback continues to be one of the most significant assets of participating in YPWeek.”

Beyond the week, NEWaukee has found that young professional programming exists in a variety of shapes and sizes in urban, suburban, and rural communities. The aggregation of the next generation of workforce through peer affinity and community-based programming is a highly functional mechanism for talent retention across the state of Wisconsin. Despite the diversity in organizational structure, in communities large and small, young professional programs serve as the gateway to a community for young talent seeking meaning and connectedness in the towns in which they initiate their careers and lives.

The most obvious connection between employers and young professional organizations is – their employees. From a pure employee engagement standpoint, young professional organizations provide a means for young employees to achieve their personal and professional goals, while the employer stands to gain a more highly engaged workforce. This matters now more than ever, as according to a Workplace Research Foundation report, highly engaged employees are much more likely to have above-average productivity, to the tune of 38%. While 90% of employers feel that having an employee engagement strategy is important and could make a difference to their business, only about 25% of employers actually have a strategy. If properly funded and organized, this could be an untapped key differentiator for the state of Wisconsin.

Most critical to the success of young professional programs is the consistent lack of support from local companies. While most companies are quick to lament the shortage in talent supply, very few are willinging to invest in a long-term solution for their current and future workforces due to how dire their talent needs are. At the same time, most young professional programs, while well-intended and full of potential to remedy this need, are typically ill-structured, misled and too financially dysfunctional to be viewed by employers as a true partner in the complicated search for a solution. Both entities are in pursuit of what the other has to offer, but often unable to use the same vocabulary or effectively leverage one another as a resource.

Several factors contribute to this disconnection over time as it relates to young professional programming.

High Turnover with Key Leadership.
Programs regularly die off or need to be rebooted due to the transient nature of this next generation. The talent is often only at a job for 18-36 months and unless she is highly connected to the community when prospecting her next career rung, she can be quick to migrate to a new region in or outside the state. A well-functioning young professional group can abate both the decision to prospect for a new position as well as to have the established network within a community to consider new job opportunities locally rather than outside of the area.

Typically, programs are run by volunteer labor, which is fickle as a young professional tries to manage building a new career and life. Without significant personal investment in the organization’s mission or the community at large, volunteer committees flounder to make headway, or to see the impact they desire and move on over time.

When afforded with a part-time or full-time staff liaison, most of the individuals selected for these roles are not highly trained in community engagement. Hence why initiating and maintaining the momentum of a volunteer board and fulfilling the day-to-day role of producing the organization’s programs is nearly impossible for a single individual to achieve. Often times this role is split between the maintenance of the young professional duties and other strategic duties within the parent organization. This causes severe and consistent burnout amongst the individuals who attempt to do it all, largely unsupported by their parent organization and their rotating volunteer committee. Turnover is also high and likely for staff liaison roles as well.

Key Leadership Lacks Needed Skill Set.
For both young professional volunteers and the staff liaisons, the skill set needed to easily navigate the nuances of corporate human resource departments, city officials, and other business leaders, as well as to appeal to their young peers through engaging programs is too steep a learning curve for the short timeframe most are involved with their organizations. No current young professional organization in the state has an articulated on-boarding or succession planning procedure. In-depth engagement training is needed as well as the direct guidance of the established leadership for the avoidance of political landmines within the community.

Successful groups have had a combination of two distinct personality types with innate skills that, when collaborating on this type of work, produce meaningful results:

The Instigator: This individual is creative, dynamic and can set a grand vision for the group.
The Facilitator: This individual is precise, steadfast and can follow through with the details needed to bring the big ideas to life.

Through in-depth training, access to the peer network and personal development, overtime, a facilitator can grow into an instigator role, though often the reverse is not true. Hence, groups led by only an instigator tend to lack the attention to detail needed to fulfill their vision. In the other case, groups led by only a facilitator tend to lack high levels of member engagement, event attendance, and general enthusiasm for the community-based work. Working in unison allows for the distribution of the bifurcated nature of the leadership role.

Every Organizational Structure Offers Challenges.
A young professional program can be found in a variety of organizational structures across the state of Wisconsin. Each format offers unique opportunities and distinct challenges:
Chambers of Commerce / Economic Development Organizations: The need for a young professional organization is mission critical to the talent woes of the company members of these organizations, though both chambers and EDOs are not equipped to provide service-based solutions to remedy those issues. Instead, they often opt for their young professional program to simply remain an “added” feature of their member benefits, without allowing for adequate funding to be allocated to the program and stymying the ability for the young professionals to fundraise for their own activities.

In addition, there tends to be a disconnect between the leadership structure of the parent and young professional boards. Both groups work independent of one another causing issues with mission creep and the inability for the young professionals to function with basic information like annual budgets, program plans, etc. This disconnection often leads to the stifling of the young professionals’ creativity and energy over time as they view the reasons for program objections as simply the “old guard” denying their ideas rather than viewing the whole context of the larger organization.

National Non-Profit Youth Councils: Often large scale non-profit organizations offer similar program formats for young professionals, though their groups tend to be mission specific for the larger organization’s goals. The primary purpose for the group is to fundraise, raise awareness, and prepare young leaders to one day join the official board. This limits the creativity and access the young professionals have to experiment with new activities and avenues of engagement and regularly causes frustration for being stuck at the “kids” table when larger decisions are made on behalf of the organization.

Independent Groups: On rare occasions, a group of young people will convene in both nonprofit and for-profit models with the intent to establish their own group. In several instances, groups have broken off of the chambers of commerce with the hope that when freed from the parent entity, they might better thrive with less restrictions. This can mean the programming is more dynamic and touches the heart of the core audience all of the groups aim to connect with, but many times creates an uphill battle for establishing the group among the business community. In smaller communities, the proliferation of young professional organizations causes deep competitiveness and frustration among local businesses, who do not want to have to pick one over the other.

Programming lacks dynamism.
Even if a group can get past the hurdles with leadership and organizational structure, in general, very few communities have programming that truly serves the needs, wants, and aspirations of the young professionals located there. The programming tends to have a rote presentation, lacking luster or true attractiveness. This is the result of the constricted budgets and poor leadership already mentioned. The true issue, however, remains that a community tends to believe that simply having a program is sufficient to attract, engage, and retain local talent. Unfortunately this style of programming leads to the opposite of the intended effect – disengaged, frustrated, and ready to move on young professionals.

Leaning into the practice of creative placemaking offers community economic developers a demonstrably effective way to encourage rural and neighborhood commercial district revitalization. Not only do creative placemaking efforts instill a sense of joy for the general public, but they also turn cutting-edge community development ideas into action. More emphasis and training on the theory of this work should be prioritized over the typical social gatherings of young professional organizations.

Grow up and out – then what?
When a group does have the correct leadership and a supportive organizational structure, the occupational hazard of the young professional eventually no longer being young is a critical issue. For the mission-based organizations, the ideal final destination for an active not-so-young professional is with a seat on the board. But for most of the organizations, there is not a direct place for them to go next. This creates a chasm of engagement for the top tier talent that each community would ideally want to keep after participating in the young professional organization and over time becoming wholly invested in that community.

Despite the challenges outlined above, Wisconsin is still the leader in this field and continues to grow year over year as the YPWeek network codifies its expertise, idea and resource sharing. NEWaukee remains ready and eager to support this network and to find new ways for this platform to support the efforts of our business community in need of talent. Over time, NEWaukee posits that our business leaders will see the value of this unique asset and meet the young professional organizations where they are and where they need them most. For more information about how this network might help your business, please reach out through

Join the Movement
In the next evolution of the internationally acclaimed YPWeek program, NEWaukee announces a new open call for communities across the United States to join the movement. The goal is to unite a national network of young professionals and aspiring community leaders to learn and grow from one another. Participants vary from independent community leaders, organizers or creatives to established young professional organizations. Multiple individuals and/or organizations can plan and host programs within the same community either independently or as a collective team.
In order to participate in YPWeek 2019, NEWaukee requests interested parties commit to:

  • Send 1-2 representatives to attend all of the YPSummit on Oct 12-14, 2018 in Milwaukee.
  • Attend 2 individual community remote meetings (Nov 2018 & April 2019), 1 community in-person meeting (Jan 2019) and bi-weekly large group remote meetings (Jan – April 2019).
  • Produce at least 3 events and 1 community project during April 19 -27, 2019.
  • Use standardized branding and messaging supplied by NEWaukee.
  • Explore joint sponsorship requests and activations with NEWaukee.To join the YPWeek network, simply register for the YPSummit:

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