Influx of workers could support Foxconn factory, business leaders say

An influx of workers from outside Wisconsin could help provide enough workers for the Taiwanese technology company Foxconn as it weighs building a factory in southeastern Wisconsin, several business leaders and observers say.

The deal, if it happens, would draw in engineers and automation workers from around the country while encouraging Wisconsin grads to stay in the state instead of heading elsewhere, they say. Look, for example, at the Madison-area health records company Epic, which started in 1979 and now has roughly 10,000 employees.

“They weren’t by any means all people who were already in Wisconsin,” said Tom Still, the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, adding that the much younger software company JAMF is also bringing people into the Eau Claire area.

Foxconn is also eyeing other states for the development, though the Wall Street Journal reported recently the company is nearing a decision to invest in Wisconsin.

Business and political leaders have repeatedly cited a “skills gap” in Wisconsin as a major problem, where jobs in manufacturing and other sectors are open but there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them. Gov. Scott Walker, for example, frequently points to the 90,000 or so jobs that are open on the Jobs Center of Wisconsin website.

The state’s unemployment rate is also now at 3.1 percent, the lowest it’s been since October 1999 and at levels that economists consider “full employment.” In Racine and Kenosha counties, two areas where Foxconn is reportedly focused on, the unemployment rates were 3.4 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively, in May.

But even with projected labor shortages, observers say the state would be able to fill the thousands of jobs the Foxconn development would bring.

For one, it would take time for that plant to get built — and then the hiring is expected to be somewhat gradual.

Steven Deller, a UW-Madison economist, said Foxconn “won’t have a problem at all” in filling the jobs as long as it offers decent wages and benefits. And, he said, the company will likely draw from northern Illinois residents and workers in other states, a population that Deller’s research indicates aren’t coming to Wisconsin at high-enough levels.

Economic development leaders have noticed, working on recruitment strategies and ways to advertise the state as one with vast job opportunities and with a high quality of life.

Beating other states to land a company like Foxconn — and emphasizing that those jobs are “cutting-edge” — would help shake off any negative perceptions, Deller said.

Still also said Wisconsin has plenty of qualified workers to bring to the table, cranking out 75,000 graduates and certificate holders every year.

And many of them come from the southern and southeastern part of the state.

Still’s most recent column quoted UW System President Ray Cross saying that “proximity is an advantage” and that Foxconn would be able to partner with campuses to offer opportunities for students.

Still also said tech colleges and the UW System might need to retool their curriculum to help meet demand from Foxconn and other local companies that would be expected to grow with it but that the “transformation is already underway.”

Jay Bayne, the former executive director of the Milwaukee Institute, said Wisconsin has long struggled in developing a pipeline of students with those kinds of degrees due to a lack of investment in such programs.

Bayne, a research professor at Marquette University, said academic programs are constrained because curriculum and syllabi can’t be changed as quickly as industry requires.

But he said the Foxconn discussions are a “great opportunity” to boost that pipeline of students from elementary school onward — even if the deal doesn’t happen.

“The whole exercise of learning how to dance with global companies, global electronic manufacturing companies, is going to teach us something really important,” Bayne said.

President Trump is making a jobs announcement at the White House this afternoon, amid speculation that Taiwanese technology company Foxconn could open a factory in southeastern Wisconsin.

The jobs announcement, published on Trump’s daily calendar via the White House pool report, is set for 4 p.m. Central Time.

Earlier this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters in Milwaukee to “stay tuned” for news about Foxconn’s decision on whether to locate a factory in southeastern Wisconsin.

–By Polo Rocha,