In the week leading up to the midterm elections, Gov. Scott Walker boarded a bus to head to small-town Wisconsin with a new message that, he hoped, would propel him into his third term.
New federal jobs data showed Wisconsin was number two in the nation in manufacturing job growth between September 2017 and September 2018 and unemployment was steady at 3 percent. The numbers were just what the campaign needed headed into its last week in race that had become a virtual toss up.
The numbers spoke for themselves, Walker said in an interview with The Daily Beast after a recent campaign stop in Appleton last week.
“Our first term was all about jobs. We’ve now been about educating and training the workforce,” Walker said.” Our goal next term is to grow the workforce. We want to do more to get our students geared up on their career path. We want to keep our graduates here.”
Still, the governor’s pronouncements are falling flat among people in several manufacturing towns across the state, who say they are still struggling to find work and more importantly, work that pays enough to feed their families.
Janesville, Wisconsin is one those towns. Some residents told The Daily Beast they are disappointed Walker didn’t live up to his promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. With the elections just around the corner, most say they feel they’ve been forgotten and don’t think things will change for them anytime soon. Others have given up on trying to find work that pays and are instead applying for social security benefits.
That underlying frustration is felt prominently among people in Rock County, where Janesville is located. Officials say they’re almost at full employment, but 42 percent of all households are either in poverty or at risk of not being able to meet financial burdens despite having people in the house that are working, according to a report issued in August.
“Everything is going up sky high. You can’t even buy groceries like you used to. Wages don’t pay enough. It’s tough out here,” said Margie Sanchez, 64, of Janesville. “It’s sad because people are really really trying to look for jobs.”
What has become a dilapidated monument to what was once a vibrant community, stands on the corner of Jackson and Elliot streets in Janesville.The once-thriving 250 acre General Motors plant is now completely abandoned. The windows of the main building are cracked. Weeds grow up through the railroad track that runs through its center.
Nothing has come in to replace the more the plant that once housed 4,000 workers from the town and its surrounding areas. The GM plant, which closed before Walker took office, was part of the social and economic fabric of Janesville, a community of 63,500. If you lived here, you either worked at the plant or knew someone who did, residents say. Families from across the state, and the country, moved to the area to find work at the plant.
It was good work, too. Employees on the assembly line made close to $26 an hour, or about $51,000 a year, before the plant’s closing in 2009—a nearly unattainable wage in manufacturing now not only in Janesville, but throughout the state.
Janesville, the home of outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), has since come under the national spotlight as a depiction, and warning, of what can happen to small town America when a massive manufacturing plant, so ingratiated in the local economy, goes bust.
The closing of the plant was a major campaign issue for Ryan when he ran for vice president on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012. During the years leading up to GM leaving Janesville, a town that has historically voted democratic town, the congressman had devised measures, along with other local officials, to try and convince the company to stay. He even said that someone, if not GM, than another manufacturer would come to take its place.
It didn’t work. In total, the area lost nearly 9,000 jobs after the plant’s closing, which aligned with the beginning of the national recession, and included workers all the way down the supply chain.
“When the plant closed there was some growing pains,” said Gale Price, the Director of Economic Development in Janesville. “We had a lot of suppliers that were tied to GM and that is not including the plant itself.”
Since then, manufacturing plants, big and small, have closed around the state, including at Kimberly-Clark, Harley Davidson and Oscar Meyer. And Wisconsinites working in the industry told The Daily Beast they’re being forced to take lower paying jobs or learn new skills to work in brand new industries. For the older people living here, re-learning a skill in their later years isn’t always an option.
“Now there are a lot of people looking for jobs after these places closed and looking for jobs at places that pay similar wages to what they used to make,” said Tarry Roovers, the international representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union. “They’re being told to learn new skills. New skills for what?”
Walker signed a major deal last year to bring Foxconn, the Taiwanese multinational electronics contract manufacturing company, to the state. The deal, which includes about $4 billion dollars in tax breaks and other incentives for the company, will create 13,000 jobs. Those jobs were originally going to go to individuals who could work on the assembly line -- people like Sanchez and her family. But executives at the company said this summer that those jobs were going to be replaced by AI. The rest would go to individuals with higher-level skills.
“Employers are gravitating toward the place that have trained experience workforce,” Walker said in Appleton. “That’s why my number one goal next term is growing the workforce, getting people trained and ready who are capable of filling those positions and can do simple things like passing a drug test. Most employers tell me give me people with basic skills that can pass a drug test and I can put anyone to work.”
For people like Sanchez and her family, back in Janesville, going back to school to learn new skills to work at a place like Foxconn isn’t an option.
“Both my daughter’s are high school graduates and they struggled for two years to get a job,” Sanchez said. “Now these places want things like computer training and degrees. When I went to work when I was 18 they didn’t have degrees. You finished high school and that was it.”
Foxconn is currently breaking ground on their new offices in Milwaukee, about 75 miles northeast of the deserted GM plant in Janesville. It’s a sign that the state is moving into a different time, said James M. Golembeski, Executive Director the Bay Area Workforce Development Board.
There was a lot of ground to make up for in Green Bay before the economy started rolling again, Golembeski said. The reason? Millennials.
“They just didn’t know how to find jobs,” Golembeski said. “They had been told to go to college and get a degree. But many of them got degrees in things like sociology. And they couldn’t find work.”
Now, his team is pushing plans to continue to diversify the local economy. He’s advising young graduates to look at getting into the STEM field, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Price said his city has also begun to focus on diversification. His team started a program that was designed with local investors to spearhead a new marketing program for the county and Janesville to help drive jobs back to the area.
“It’s been very successful,” Price said. “The governor announced earlier this summer that United Alloy would expand here and create new jobs.” That expansion is expected to create about 66 jobs.
Back at the corner of Elliot and Jackson street, the demolition of the plant is currently underway.
Many of those who chose to stay here now commute to GM plants in Indiana or Kansas City to work. Others are now collecting social security benefits. Janesville has one of the highest rates of enrollment in the state.
“There are options here. If people can’t find employment in Janesville there were options in other towns,” Price said. “But I think a lot of people believed in the community and they found a way to weather the storm.”