Thoughts on Janesville: “many people who went to Blackhawk didn’t finish what they were studying for a whole lot of reasons”

I recently read, with interest, Amy Goldstein’s book: Janesville.

The work is a worthwhile look at Janesville’s history, including George Parker (Parker Pen) and Joseph A. Craig (brought GM to Janesville).

Goldstein revealed the workforce’s culture, opportunities and the shutdown’s ultimate cost. Further, she dwelled extensively on Congressman Paul Ryan and Governor Scott Walker, with a bit of time on his predecessor, Jim Doyle.

If I have one criticism, Goldstein’s heavy emphasis on the politicians is, in my view an error. Government in and of itself cannot create sustainable jobs on the scale of a large manufacturer and its supply chain. It (using taxpayer funds) can create – hopefully on our behalf – an environment conducive to sustainable entrepreneurs.

Goldstein’s look at the funds spent on retraining and the downstream effectiveness, or lack thereof, at Blackhawk Technical College is likely most interesting to readers.

Related: Amy Goldstein:

But even under such favorable circumstances, I wondered, how easily can a vocational college teach laid-off people a new identity, as well as new skills? What does it take for a campus to absorb droves of worried, angry factory workers who were out of school, in most cases, for a few decades and may not have liked school as kids? Most fundamentally, does retraining succeed in an environment in which work remains scarce—at least in places like Janesville, where, despite intense economic development efforts the past few years, the number of jobs remains about as low as at any time since the recent recession began?

These were questions that drew me to Wisconsin a year before a native son would bound onto the Republican presidential ticket. They led me to the kitchen tables and back decks of people struggling to regain their footing, to Blackhawk’s classrooms and counselors’ offices, to the United Auto Workers hall and the local job-placement agency. Finally, they led me into a Wisconsin agency, two blocks from the state capitol in Madison, in a quest for unemployment claims and wage records to bore into the most central question of all: How are laid-off people who went to Blackhawk to retrain faring at finding new work? What kind of pay are they getting?

In the end, I found certain successes. But from the many people I’ve met and from an analysis of the state records, most of what I discovered was sobering. It suggests that, even if the US economy as a whole is gradually reviving, the bruises to individual workers and individual communities can be deeper than job training can readily heal. “Retraining, yes,” Chris Pody, who directs Blackhawk’s Career Center, which helps students choose what to study and learn how best to look for jobs, told me the first time we met. “But the question has been—and hasn’t been answered—for what?”

Bob Borremans runs the Rock County Job Center in Janesville, which is the county seat. The warren of offices and cubicles that occupies a former K-Mart is part of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, a regional funnel for the federal job-hunting and job-training money that flows through every state and into communities around the country. With a white beard and a sly sense of humor, Borremans has a doctorate and the kind of independence of thought that can come with being within sight of retirement. For nearly two decades, he was a senior administrator at Blackhawk and, in his job now, has been instrumental in virtually every initiative in the past few years to try to bring jobs and assistance to town. “Looking back on it, we may have trained too many people, because there weren’t enough jobs,” Borremans told me one day. “People are experiencing a double whammy. They lost their jobs. They went to school to get skills, and they still can’t get jobs.”

Locally, Madison College’s spending has nearly doubled over the past decade.

Breann Schossow:

Workers Attend Blackhawk Technical College For Retraining

Goldstein: In this country, the notion of what to do when jobs go away often is, ‘Go back to school to learn to do something else.’ It’s just a very popular idea. So almost 2,000 people in Janesville went to Blackhawk Tech in the couple years after all this work went away.

The question of what is success, I thought, was a very interesting question as I was getting to know people in town, because, as I said, many people who went to Blackhawk didn’t finish what they were studying for a whole lot of reasons.

Either financial reasons or because they found that being a student, they weren’t cut out to do that. But even people who (were cut out for it) sometimes found that they just couldn’t find a decent job in what they had been studying.

… Blackhawk Tech tried very, very hard with their students.

I mean, they set up all kinds of programs to try to make it easier for factory workers to turn themselves into students, but I think it’s a hard situation when you don’t always have enough jobs of the right kind or enough jobs at all on the other end.

I don’t think it is an indictment of retraining programs broadly, but I think it does suggest that in a community that’s still having a hard time pulling enough jobs into itself, that retraining alone can’t solve everything.

Ideally, our increasingly expensive education system should focus on the essentials: reading, math and science. Madison continues to tolerate long term, disastrous reading results.

There has been some discussion about a reduction in our economy’s dynamism. Matt Stoller and Tyler Cowen are worth following. Cowen has written two books of note:

The Complacent Class

Average is Over


The Return of Monopoly.

A recent propublica report worth reading:

President Obama promised to fight corporate concentration. Eight years later, the airline industry is dominated by just four companies. And you’re paying for it..