Wisconsin has a math problem that UW System leaders believe they can help solve.

The state is on track to be 300,000 workers short of what employers need within 10 years.

“Everywhere we go employers are screaming for talent,” UW System President Ray Cross said Wednesday in an interview with the Leader-Telegram editorial board.

With basic demographics working against the state — the number of high school graduates is projected to drop from a typical level of about 72,000 annually to below 60,000 by 2026 — UW System campuses must work with businesses to be part of the solution, Cross said.

“We need every living body to be a part of our talent, and the university has to help with that,” he said.

Cross joined UW System Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt and UW-Stout Interim Chancellor Patrick Guilfoile on Wednesday in Eau Claire for the seventh stop on the statewide “All In Wisconsin” tour. The road show included a breakfast with business and community leaders, meetings with students and faculty, and interviews with local media.

“We’re attempting to find ways to deepen and strengthen our relationships with businesses and communities,” said Cross, who last month announced plans to retire as soon as the regents hire his replacement.

Petersen said the tour gives system leaders the opportunity to spread the word about the positive impact its universities have on Wisconsin’s economy and also to hear ideas from business and community officials about what else the UW System can do to serve the state.

UW campuses were hindered in that mission by overregulation and major budget cuts in the past decade, the system leaders said, but they are optimistic that what Petersen called a “status quo” 2019-21 biennial state budget represents the beginning of a turnaround in state higher education funding. Cross said the system has worked hard to regain the confidence of legislators and demonstrate its importance in solving the workforce shortage and other challenges.

“The role of this (tour) is to build the case that there is no better economic investment for taxpayers in Wisconsin to make than the UW System,” Petersen said, adding that the state’s strong economy makes it a good time to invest in higher education.

“This is a huge opportunity for us, and the reason why is that we’re not in an economic downturn. The economy is firing on all cylinders, and the challenge we have is to accelerate that,” he said.

More state investment would help Schmidt address what he called his top priorities at UW-Eau Claire: retaining expertise by making faculty and staff salaries more competitive with other states and ending class bottlenecks that sometimes prevent students from graduating in four years.

“We’re slowly trying to get back to a healthy environment after the big 2015 cuts,” Schmidt said.

Guilfoile pointed out that the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis prompted Minnesota’s legislature to make a major boost in transportation infrastructure spending but said no such disaster is likely to spur more investment in higher education funding.

Instead, he said, “It’s a gradual whittling away of what those institutions can do.”

The contingent also talked about ways UW campuses can help with the workforce shortage and serve local communities.

Schmidt and Guilfoile both mentioned pushing for more partnerships with local employers as an example. Those could come in the form of business representatives on curriculum advisory boards or internship programs that provide valuable job experience for students and give employers a leg up on competitors for future employees.

That could even mean recruiting employers who are “desperate for help” to be part of the solution by underwriting academic programs or undergraduate degrees for some students, Petersen said.

Cross cited the water quality research as an example of how the system can help Wisconsin solve such pressing problems as lead in municipal water supplies, potential groundwater contamination from large-scale farms and aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes.

“The university can help solve that problem and in doing so we become the center for freshwater research around the world,” he said.

Looking to the future, Cross said the UW System needs to help businesses improve productivity, make it easier for existing workers to get a degree without having to quit their jobs and attend classes on campus and also must redouble its efforts to keep students in Wisconsin after they graduate.

“I’m fighting for every one of those kids. That’s the future of this state,” Cross said.

Schmidt vouched for Cross’ commitment, noting that the system president personally tried to persuade a few UW-Eau Claire students to stay in Wisconsin after graduation during a Wednesday lunch gathering.

Beyond just greasing the talent pipeline, such steps also have the potential to insulate the state’s economy from the inevitable ebbs and flows of the business cycle.

“It is a lot cheaper to keep this economy going and the prosperity for people moving along than to come up short,” Schmidt said. “At some point there will be some type of a downturn or recession. ... We’re trying to be proactive so we have a shallow downturn and come out sooner.”