Lack Of Affordable Housing Stifles Growth In Juneau County

Manufacturing Companies Say New Hires Forced To Rely On Local Hotels, Trailers, Tents For Housing

"Now Hiring Welders" sign
Rachael Vasquez/WPR

On an early November afternoon at QPS Employment’s office in Juneau County, Jessica Rathburn clicked through databases and forms on her computer as she called over her next client.

“Romain, you can come on over, I can take you over here,” she said.

Romain Lawrence, a tall Mauston resident with graying hair, sat down across the desk from Rathburn. He was there looking for a job.

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“We’ll go through your application here together, and we’ll go through some just general interview stuff,” Rathburn told him.

Amy Garncarz, foreground, doing new-employee orientation at QPS Employment, a regional staffing agency that contracts with local employers in Juneau County. Rachael Vasquez/WPR

QPS Employment is a regional staffing agency. Their office in Juneau County does hiring for a number of local employers. Ron Brunner, the founder and CEO of Brunner Manufacturing, is one of those employers. His company makes steel parts for companies like John Deere and Caterpillar Inc. Brunner says the company needs workers to keep up with business.

“I’ve got customers right now that are screaming at us,” Brunner said. “We haven’t taken on a new customer in two months.”

The county has about 26,300 people in its borders, according to a 2016 population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, and for a county of its size, it has a lot of manufacturers.

The list includes Brunner Manufacturing — in addition to Walker Stainless, a stainless steel tank manufacturer that employs about 500 people, and Parker Hannifan, a trans-national motion-control technology manufacturer with more than $12 billion in sales this year — all of which are looking to keep their offices and production lines staffed.

Brunner said the company would “relocate anybody from anywhere” if they understood the company’s equipment, calling the shortage of workers there “unreal.”

“If I could take a dozen guys and gals in here tomorrow morning, I could put ’em all to work with no questions at all,” Brunner said.

QPS Employment’s office in Juneau County. Rachael Vasquez/WPR

Local businesses have different explanations for why it’s been so difficult to find employees. Most say that simply finding qualified staff in the county is getting increasingly difficult — a point supported by Juneau County’s preliminary September unemployment rate, which is at 2.8 percent. Still, other companies say housing in the county is a problem that’s affecting their ability to find workers.

Jim Arzt does recruiting for Walker Stainless. He says when the company is hiring from outside the county, housing is one of their biggest hurdles.

“We’ve had people live in a trailer, in a tent, and everything here,” Arzt said. He said things get worked out eventually, “but it does hurt the recruiting ability.”

It also makes it harder to keep workers already on staff.

“Well if you can’t find a house, and you don’t have a place to live, you’re going to move some place where you can and find a job there,” Arzt said.

For places like Walker Stainless and Brunner Manufacturing, retention is a big deal. More often than not, the companies require skilled labor.

Kevin Tims moved to Juneau County from Georgia in April to take a quality assurance job with Walker Stainless. He was living at a Best Western hotel in the county for five months before he found a place to live.

“It’s been real tough, real tough,” Tims said.

For Tims, the challenge with housing in Juneau County is the lack of mid-range housing.

Dennis Lawrence, executive director of the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, is studying housing in the county. He said mid-range for Juneau County would be between approximately $100,000 and $150,000 to purchase a single-family home.

But Tims said that’s just not realistic.

“If you really want a good livable house, you’re looking at anywhere between the high $200s to the mid to low $300s,” Tims said.

Dennis Lawrence said that while there is low-priced housing in the county, those units need, “upgrades, or it’s just old housing that doesn’t have the amenities people are looking for.”

He said outside of the cheaper, rundown units, the only other options residents have for housing are high-priced developments near the area’s lakes.

Terry Whipple, head of the Juneau County Economic Development Corp. says after the Great Recession, the county lost a lot of small, local developers; the ones responsible for much of the area’s building — and he’s right.

In 2008, there was an average of 22 construction companies in Juneau County, according to data from the Quarterly Census of Employment & Wages collected by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. In 2016, that figure had dropped to just 13.

And the developers that are still building? Whipple said they are largely focused on the expensive developments by the county’s lakes. He said it’s a simple business decision.

“Lower risk, higher profit margins,” Whipple said.

In an attempt to make up for the lack of housing for potential employees, Brunner decided to take action a while ago. In the 1990s he built four duplexes on his farmland to help house new-hires.

To this day if one’s available, he’ll offer three months of free rent as part of a relocation stipend. That plus a base salary of $16 dollars an hour, and a benefits package Brunner calls “second-to-none,” are all part of the company’s effort to find qualified staff, and keep the factory moving.