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Rare Agreement: Obama, Romney, Ryan All Endorse Retraining for Jobless—But Are They Right?

After GM shut its venerable assembly plant in Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, WI, throngs of laid-off workers got blue-ribbon retraining. The Big Surprise: Data shows they’re doing less well, so far, than those who didn't go back to school.

In February 2008, six days before he would win the Wisconsin presidential primary, Barack Obama traveled to a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., for a major economic address. Janesville is a community of 63,000 on a bend in the Rock River near the Illinois line, three-fourths of the way up Interstate 90 from Chicago to Madison. On the sides of downtown buildings, pastel murals by area artists show scenes from the city’s past, hinting at its muscular civic spirit and outsized role in U.S. industry. “History. Vision. Sweat.” is lettered across one mural’s bottom edge. The small city has been catapulted into public view as the hometown of this year’s Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan. But long before, it was the home of Parker Pen. And for nearly a century, the soul of the local economy had been the Janesville Assembly Plant, where GM had started out making tractors and, in 1923, begun to build cars. The oldest operating automotive facility in the United States, it was even four years agoa storied site for a campaign speech.

“Through hard times and good, great challenges and great change,” the Illinois senator intoned, “the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America.” The day before, the General Motors Company had announced for 2007 the largest annual loss ever recorded by an automaker. Rumors of closing were filtering through the plant. But on this clear, 17-degree Wisconsin morning, Obama sounded confident. From a podium with a plaque that said, “People working together,” he spoke of a clean-energy economy and a growing middle class, of prosperity as a tide lifting every boat. “I believe that, if our government is there to support you…,” he told the workers gathered around him near the medium-duty truck line on the second floor, “this plant will be here for another hundred years.”

Ten months later, two days before Christmas and four weeks before Obama’s inauguration, the Janesville Assembly Plant shut down. Its nearly 3,000 employees who lost jobs that year were among more than 5,000 casualties of mass layoffs that cascaded through town, washing away jobs at companies that supplied parts and services to GM, and then hitting businesses unrelated to the auto industry that could not withstand the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Beyond these mass layoffs were jobs scattered at restaurants and stores, nail salons and daycare centers that folded under the weight of the sinking local economy. Unlike in Flint, Mich.; Erie, Pa.; or other neon names of the nation’s Rust Belt, the sudden evaporation of work was stunning and alien to Janesville. Four years later, in the midst of another election season, this proud manufacturing town has become a proving ground for a significant question as jobs, or their scarcity, are a fulcrum for Obama’s chances of a second term, and Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s chances at a first: When the economy has knocked so many people out of the middle class, can job-retraining bring them back?

The idea of teaching laid-off workers new skills for new kinds of jobs is a rare economic policy on which the major political parties agree. Retraining has emerged as a mantra for the Obama White House, and two-year colleges its antidote of choice. Four years to the day after he spoke in Janesville, the president announced his 2013 budget at a community college in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. And at the first presidential debate this fall, he reprised the theme: “When it comes to community colleges,” he said, “we are seeing great work done out there all over the country because we have the opportunity to train people for jobs that exist right now.”

Sharing the Denver stage with the president that night, Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, made much the same point. Federal money must, he said, “go to the workers so they can create their own pathways to get in the training they need for jobs that will really help them.” This enthusiasm for retraining is matched by his running mate, Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the chief architect of a conservative vision for the nation’s fiscal future. Ryan grew up in Janesville and has represented it in Congress for 14 years.

When I saw Ryan last fall at a “listening session” with constituents, 10 months before he would become part of the GOP ticket, he told me that helping people get better job skills was an important government role. The point has now become part of his stump speech, and it was on his mind when he was back in Janesville near the end of August, standing in shirtsleeves and khakis near center court of the gym in the high school he graduated from a quarter-century ago. “You know, we’ve been hit pretty hard here,” he told his relatives and neighbors and a couple-thousand others who squeezed onto risers for a rally just before their local star left for the Republican National Convention. “You know, we used to always say, ‘As GM goes, so goes Janesville.’ . . .But we are a hardy people, and we will recover from this. I’ve got a lot of friends who lost their job at the plant. One of my buddies, he went to Blackhawk Tech. Afterwards, he got an HVAC contracting degree. And now . . . he’s got a great career, and he’s happy . . . That’s the kind of thing we need to do: Pick ourselves up, help people who need, give them the job-training skills they [have to] have.”

Blackhawk Tech as the New Plant Gate

This unlikely bipartisanship fits with an abiding cultural belief, since America’s founding, of this as a land that offers its people a chance at personal reinvention. And it keeps faith with a deep-etched understanding in the United States of education as the key to upward mobility. But does job retraining actually work? The answer, especially in the context of the recent recession, has not been well understood. Janesville is a singularly useful place to look for clues. The reason? Since General Motors set off the cascade that knocked thousands of people out of work, it is a community that, in many ways, has been doing everything right.

Blackhawk Technical College, which Ryan talked up, is a small two-year college in Janesville that is exactly the kind of place federal officials and other policy specialists have in mind to help unemployed people get back to work. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Blackhawk Tech is part of a network of 16 such colleges in Wisconsin that was the first system of state-supported trade schools in the United States, created to transform farm boys into labor for the early 20th Century’s industrial boom. It is like a community college but, instead of preparing some students to go on to universities, it offers only vocational programs, teaching its students to be welders, IT specialists, and medical lab technicians, and to go into advanced manufacturing – precisely the skills that Obama has been touting for retraining programs. As the president and others urge two-year colleges to become partners with local businesses, to try to navigate laid-off workers into fields in which jobs are most likely to exist, Blackhawk already has been doing that for years.

In the months after the big layoffs, the school had the largest surge in students in the Wisconsin technical colleges’ history. State senator Tim Cullen, running in 2010 for his old seat in the Wisconsin legislature that he had vacated years earlier, realized that, with GM’s gates padlocked, he could no longer spend the final weeks of his campaign as he always had, shaking hands with plant workers at shift changes; he considered where he could now find masses of voters – and drove to the college. “I realized the new plant gate,” he told me, “is Blackhawk Tech.”

In contrast to some two-year colleges around the country, which tend to treat older, dislocated workers as afterthoughts, Blackhawk was welcoming and nimble. Trying to allay the anxiety of workers coming back to school, the college held a community picnic for families with games for the children and a chance for the adults to talk with deans and instructors over hamburgers and hot dogs. It added 88 class sections, hired extra instructors, borrowed financial aid officers from other schools and, when it ran out of classrooms, added Saturday sessions. Most remarkable, the college managed to extract from Congress a $2 million earmark specifically to train some of its dislocated workers.

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 U.S. 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.”

‘Great Training Robbery’ or Path to the Future

Whether job retraining can be counted on to lift shell-shocked, displaced workers back into the middle class is a question that matters beyond one small college in one small Wisconsin city. It matters because of the central place of jobs in this year’s elections, as our economy remains wobbly and our politics polarized – perhaps nowhere more so than in Wisconsin where a bold conservative, Scott Walker, this spring became the first governor in U.S. history to withstand a recall election.And it matters because of how many Americans have been out of work for a long time. Even as the nation’s overall unemployment rate has fallen lately, the proportion of laid-off workers unable to find a job for six months or longer remains stuck at 40 percent – far higher than at any other time since World War II, when the government began keeping track. All told, 5 million Americans fit this definition of the “long-term unemployed.” The recent recession stole the greatest number of U.S. jobs – more than 2 million – from manufacturing, the kind of often-well-paid work that is most of what Janesville has lost.

Of these lingering casualties of the recession, many are embracing the bipartisan portrayal of retraining as a path out of unemployment. Neither the government nor policy researchers nor education associations keep tabs on how many laid-off people have enrolled in community or technical colleges. But recent surveys suggest that, three years after the recession’s official end, about one-third of those who became unemployed have pursued some form of retraining—at two-year colleges and elsewhere—in hopes of a new job.

This is not exactly a new idea. Federal support for job training was a tenet of the War on Poverty of the 1960s. And in the early 1980s, the Job Training Partnership Act became the first federal training program to expand from helping the underclass to helping people of any class who were out of a job. Debate used to swirl in academic and policy circles over whether training really helps laid-off people find work. In 1970, the sociologist Ivar Berg argued in his classic book, “Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery,” that it did not. Today, amid the upbeat political rhetoric, that side of the debate has virtually disappeared. And it has disappeared even though the evidence of whether job training helps dislocated workers is at best murky.

The recent research literature on the effects of sending the unemployed back to school is thin and mixed. Some studies have found that retraining translates into somewhat better pay and greater chances of a job, mostly if laid-off people prepare to enter certain technical and health care fields. On the other hand, the biggest study of the largest federal source of training subsidies for dislocated workers, the Workforce Investment Act, found a few years ago that the unemployed WIA participants who retrained were, for a while, worse off than similar people who hadn’t gone back to school. Although they caught up after a few years, they never pulled far ahead, according to the study commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department and carried out by academic researchers. In any case, no studies had looked at this question using data since the recession began. That is the black hole I wanted to try, in a modest way, to fill in.

The state of Wisconsin didn’t make it easy. The agency in Madison, the Department of Workforce Development, keeps the two main ingredients I needed: records of unemployment claims, to show who had lost jobs, and the kind of wage records kept by every state of every worker’s earnings for every quarter of the year. I asked for these records for Janesville and nearby communities from which Blackhawk Technical College draws most of its students.

At first, I was quoted a huge price for the data. But as luck would have it, an enterprising economic analyst inside the agency already had asked for the very records I wanted; we became allies, and because the agency couldn’t charge one of its own employees, the price tag for me went away. But other roadblocks proved formidable. After a few months, we were told we could have the data, but more delays ensued. There was a mysteriously frozen computer account, a mysteriously disappearing memo of understanding between two parts of the agency, repeated rounds of legal reviews, and on and on. Through this all, I was checking for advice with the few researchers around the country who do this kind of work, and they had their own tales of having tried—and often failed—to pry loose the same kinds of records from other states. The study of WIA, for instance, was designed to include data from all 50 states, but just a dozen agreed to participate. So the surprise, it turned out, was not that getting the records from Wisconsin was hard. It was that we got them in the end.

I then carried out an analysis with a lot of help from two good labor economists: Kevin Hollenbeck, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Blackhawk helped, too, providing records of their students and academic information about them. And what we discovered did not resemble the upbeat rhetoric about retraining spoken by the president – or by Romney and Ryan.

We found that 1,740 dislocated workers had started classes at Blackhawk between the summers of 2008 and 2010, after the plant closed. Getting a job after retraining, we found, has been quite a problem. Of these people, 541 earned at least some money in every season. Another 532 were working more sporadically. The rest – nearly 40 percent – didn’t earn anything at all. Then, we looked at wages. Compared with before the recession, the earnings of those with at least some work dropped, on average, by 36 percent.

The Bright Side of Lower Pay

Mike Vaughn (Amy Goldstein)

Mike Vaughn has learned first-hand that a new job does not necessarily bring back old pay. A plain-spoken man of 44 with close-cropped dark hair and an earnest manner, he was the chief union officer at Lear Seating, a factory with nearly 800 people whose work was to make seats for General Motors, delivered three hours before they were bolted into the SUVs and trucks that the Janesville plant produced in its final years. The day GM closed, Lear shut down, too.

Vaughn’s grandfather Tom worked at General Motors for 30 ½ years. His father, Dave, started in 1967 as a spot welder and retired nearly four decades later. They also held offices in United Auto Workers local #95, making Vaughn part of one of only two families in town with three generations on the local’s executive committee. GM wasn’t hiring when Mike Vaughn came along, so, after a brief try at college and a stint as a hospital cook, he took a job at Lear. He worked there for 18 years. He met his wife, Barb, there. With three years less seniority than him, she lost her job, bolting a hinge to the back of the seat frame, when GM and Lear let go one shift the July before they shut down for good. As the unit chairman, Vaughn stayed on until April 2009, as a score of maintenance workers took the factory apart. It meant that, by the time it was his last day, he had really gone through four last days with round after round of layoffs over 16 months, answering scared workers’ questions each time, as best he could. “I told them...they had to remember that we’d been very proud people, hard-working people, and you have to make the best of what comes next and start formulating your plan.” From Christmas 2008 until that April, he told me, “I watched every day as the plant was dismantled, piece by piece, assembly line by assembly line, and at one point the whole plant was just empty, which was kind of how I felt.”

Throughout those months, his wife had enrolled at Blackhawk. He watched her study hard enough to get “A’s” — and he formulated his own plan. The work for which his union role had best suited him, he decided, would be in human resources management. He looked for a job through the spring and summer and, when none came, turned to his backup idea. Blackhawk, as it happened, was starting a new human resources program. The fall of 2009, he became one of its first students—just 14 of them, almost all dislocated workers, like him. Employment law. Payroll systems. Health and safety. Leadership. “At first, it was scary, intimidating,” he recalls. But he had a knack he’d lacked after high school, he realized, for classroom learning.

And he was lucky in another way. Because some of Lear’s jobs had gone out of the country, Vaughn qualified for a generous form of federal training help through the Trade Adjustment Act. In fiscal 2010—the year he started back at school—TAA gave out $575 million nationwide that helped nearly 10,000 dislocated workers, including 544 at Blackhawk, paying for tuition, books, gas, day care and other support, while they collected unemployment benefits.

The cool May 2011 night that Vaughn took his last exam, 26 months after he’d left the empty Lear factory, he walked from the classroom building to his white Chevy truck, the backpack over his shoulder light, with just a few sheets he’d used to finish studying. “I had a feeling of pride. I had done it. I had pulled 21 A’s, an A minus, and a B.”

Within weeks, he was working the overnight shift in the human resources department at the Janesville plant of Seneca Foods Corp., a manufacturer of canned and frozen vegetables. “I have to think I’m one of the best-case scenarios,” he told me, “I love what I’m doing now. . .I’m working in my field. I’m working in town.”

There is a catch. His new salary is about half of the “high two-figures” he earned at Lear. His wife works with people with developmental disabilities and is now studying towards a bachelor’s degree. Together, their income is slightly more than what one of them earned before. “The old times. . .it’s not that I don’t think of them,” Vaughn says. “But I don’t sit and dwell on the negatives of the fact that I make less money . . . You accept them and move on.”

The drop in pay that we found among Blackhawk’s retrainees mirrors what has been happening around the country. According to a recent study for the Brookings Institution, dislocated workers laid off in the U.S. between 2007 and 2010 can expect to lose at least $220,000 in lifetime earnings, compared with with what they would have been paid if their job had survived.

Perplexing Puzzle: Why the Retrained Fare Worse

What is more surprising — because no one else has looked at this question lately anywhere in the country — is that the laid-off people around Janesville who went to Blackhawk are faring worse than their laid-off neighbors who did not. We discovered this striking fact by comparing the dislocated workers who retrained with a larger group of about 28,000 residents, from the two counties where most Blackhawk students live, who had collected unemployment benefits recently and not gone to the college.

Workers Who Retrained Less Likely to Have Found a Job So Far


 Year ending June 2011

So Far, Retrained Workers Have Been Less Likely to Find Consistent Work


 Went to Blackhawk
 Did not retrain.Year ending 2011

Laid-Off Workers who Retrained are Earning Less Money than Those who Didn't Go Back to School


 Year ending June 2011Median Quarterly Earnings

Of People Who Found Consistent Work, Those Who Didn't Retrain Did Better in Absolute and Relative Terms


 Year ending June 2011Median Quarterly Earnings

For one thing, the people who didn’t retrain are working more. About half of them had wages every season of the year, compared with about one in three who went to Blackhawk. An even bigger gap exists in how much those who have jobs are earning. Before the recession, we found, the two groups – the dislocated workers who went to school and the ones who didn’t – were, on average, getting paid about the same. Afterwards, the ones who didn’t retrain are earning more. Their pay has fallen by just 8 percent – about one-fourth the size of the pay drop among the people who went to school. This startled us so much that we dug deeper. We looked at only people working the most. We factored out a few hundred who were still in school. And we looked at just the dislocated workers who had graduated from Blackhawk, rather than dropping out. No matter how we looked at it, those who had retrained were worse off, at least for now, than those who had not.

Taken together, what we discovered—that laid-off people who retrained at this small Wisconsin college are not faring very well, that they are faring worse, in fact, than their laid-off neighbors who didn’t go back to school – raises more questions than it answers. What is going on?

One possibility is that the laid-off people best able to get another job did, while those who were less desirable to employers went to Blackhawk. Or it could be that the advantages from retraining are just slow to materialize; in other words, people such as Mike Vaughn, who go from senior positions to entry-level jobs, might need years to catch back up. Another possibility is that people who didn’t invest a year or two in education snapped up jobs that were gone by the time those who went to Blackhawk began searching for work.

At least part of the answer, though, is the stark reality that, at least in places like Janesville, work is still very hard to find. “It isn’t that training is good. It isn’t that training is bad,” Dresser, the University of Wisconsin labor economist, mused one day during one of our many phone chats. “If you don’t have enough jobs….you cannot train your way to victory.”Perhaps no one in town has as clear a view of these complexities as Sharon Kennedy. A smart, energetic woman in her 60s with a blond bob and a quick smile, she is Blackhawk’s chief academic officer – “vice president of learning” is her title. “I kind of came to the conclusion,” she confided to me over dinner one spring night, that turning former factory workers into college graduates with good jobs is “harder than many people think. Because of the people. Because of the lack of jobs. Because of the tension between business and education. We have probably as good a relationship with business as anybody, and it still isn’t easy.”

Even at a school like Blackhawk Tech and in a city like Janesville, which have been trying like hell.

The Glory and Pain of 90 Years With GM

On the way into town from the Interstate along Racine Avenue, two small American flags flutter from each median streetlight. On the right is pretty Palmer Park, one of 64 big patches of green that give Janesville its nickname, “Wisconsin’s Park Place.” And a few blocks before South Main Street, the Italian House -- “Home of the Famous Gondola and Pasta” and voted the best Italian restaurant last year by readers of the Janesville Gazette – does a brisk business for dinner and lunch. For all the economic hardship that has arrived since 2008, Janesville is resilient. When the middle class falls out of the middle class, it does not look like places worn out by ingrained poverty. Still, if you look closely, the pain is there.

In the months after so many jobs went away, boats for sale became common sights in driveways. Payday loan places have cropped up along Milton Avenue, a commercial spine that runs north from downtown. At Rivers Edge Bowl, co-owner Chris Jones, whose family has run bowling alleys in town since the 1950s, told me that lanes are uncharacteristically open now most nights since fewer people can afford to be in leagues. In December 2009—a year after General Motors closed—United Auto Workers local #95 could not, for the first time in a quarter century, support its tradition of buying and bagging food for needy families over the holidays. The public school system has taken over the food drive.

This reversal of fortune is unlike anything in Janesville’s history as a place that, if not affluent, has prided itself on being comfortable – and innovative – for a long time. A decade before the Civil War, it was the site of Wisconsin’s first state fair, to showcase new farming techniques. Two years after the war ended, the state’s first organization to promote women’s suffrage formed in Janesville. It was where George Parker, in 1888, founded Parker Pen. Down through the decades, the executives of its corporate headquarters, on the corner of East Court Street and Parker Drive, provided a major source of local philanthropy until the company was bought out, and, eventually, the vestigial Janesville workforce of 140 was laid off a week after New Year’s of 2010.

All that was eclipsed by General Motors. In 1918, GM’s founder, W.C. Durant, eager to branch into mechanized farm equipment, summoned a gifted local businessman, Joseph A. Craig, general manager of the Janesville Machine Company, to Detroit to try to hire him. By the end of the meeting, Craig had persuaded Durant to take over his Janesville factory and merge it with the Samson Tractor Co., of California, which GM already owned. Durant had such faith in Janesville that, in February, 1919, he sent a check for what was then a fortune -- $100,000 – to the Janesville Improvement Association to help build housing for the workers who would be needed as the company grew. “I am pleased to say,” Durant wrote in a letter with the check, “that in my entire experience, I have never seen in a city of modest size a better spirit or a more commendable accomplishment. I predict for Janesville a splendid future.”The tractor business faltered, and on Valentine’s Day 1923, GM’s Janesville plant turned out its first car there—a Chevrolet. The plant grew to 4.8 million square feet with 7,100 workers at its peak in the late 1970s. Families pulled in relatives, one generation to the next, because of pay and benefits so generous they stoked resentments around town. The plant had survived the Great Depression, although it closed in 1932 for two years and sent a few hundred workers to build cars at the Chicago World’s Fair. The plant was one of the sites of the 1937 General Motors “sit-down strike,” an important moment in U.S labor history. During World War II, it was part of the home front, producing more than 16 million artillery shells. And during Vietnam, it added a shift to produce pick-ups for the military, with paint mixers making special colors for the Army, Navy and Air Force. In 1967, General Motors’ produced its 100,000,000th U.S.-made vehicle, a blue Caprice coupe assembled in Janesville. The company’s choice of Janesville for that milestone reflected the plant’s reputation for a top-flight workforce. On a cool spring morning, when I ran into Mike Vaughn’s father, Dave, the vice president of what remains of the UAW local, he was wearing a green, zippered fleece with a patch on the sleeve. “JD Power Highest Initial Quality. SUV 2004.” He told me that he has in his closet sweatshirts and jackets with patches for other awards. “Every time we won one,” he recalled, “the company took orders from the workers for sizes.”

Today, the plant is a carcass behind chain link, weeds growing up through the cracks in its vast parking lots. Technically, it is “on standby,” not permanently closed. Yet the revival of GM’s fortunes lately has not helped the people of Janesville. The plant already had shut months before the Obama administration rescued the company so that it could restructure. By a year ago, when the company negotiated a new labor contract with the United Auto Workers, it agreed to reopen the only other U.S. plant that it had placed on standby, a facility in Spring Hill, TN, built in 1990. The Janesville plant, many decades older, remained closed.

Even though it is antiquated, even though nearly four years have gone by since its last vehicle—a black Tahoe LTZ, raffled off for charity to a GM retiree—came off the assembly line, rumors occasionally circulate that it might reopen, bringing back jobs to GM and the companies that collapsed along with it. Rachel Jorgenson, one of Blackhawk’s small crew of counselors, still hears such talk. “I want to slap people,” she says. “It’s the oldest plant in the company. They are not going to reopen the plant. I’m thinking, you need to move forward.”But the people who turned to Blackhawk have, after all, been trying to move forward. Why aren’t more of them succeeding?

To Hell — and Back — With Jeremy Kath

The main campus of Blackhawk Technical College is a single, sprawling building of beige brick that sits along County Road G, surrounded by cornfields, a few miles south of downtown. This is where Kennedy arrived as the chief academic officer, the college’s second-in-command, in the winter of 2008, months before the mass layoffs began. What she and the college have been through has led her to pursue her own research on assembly line workers, in Janesville and other Midwestern communities, who have lost jobs and gone to school. A central reason retraining is so difficult, she has come to believe, is the complicated transition from a factory culture to college life.

At Blackhawk, this culture clash has shown up in small ways: Guys arriving a half-hour early with the thermoses they used to bring to work, to shoot the breeze as they did before their shifts. And in bigger ways—students, upset with a grade, who complain to deans, expecting them to respond like the union shop stewards who always advocated for them. The laid-off workers formed study groups, telephone trees and Facebook pages to coax each other along. The student government suddenly had members with gray hair. But old workplace rivalries and cliques also resurfaced. “That is the stuff,” Kennedy told me. “Businesses don’t understand how hard it is to bring them a good workforce.”

“You have people coming in who are devastated,” said Jorgenson. She cried along with a woman who’d had to train workers from Mexico to take over the job she was losing that was moving out of the country. “It’s like a death,” she said.

Jeremy Kath (Amy Goldstein)

In the spring of 2010, a six-foot-two 36-year-old named Jeremy Kath came to see Pody, who runs the college’s career center. He was almost in tears. It had been more than a year since he’d taken a buyout, rather than face the likelihood of losing his job of a dozen years at a Chrysler plant not far over the Illinois line. He’d been trying to start a restaurant when his wife, whom he’d met at 16 and married at 20, told him she was leaving. She was working as a registered nurse and better able to keep up their house payments, so he was living in his parents’ basement, debating whether to use government retraining money he knew he could get. “Here I am in the beginning of a divorce I didn’t want,” he recalled admitting to Pody. “I didn’t want to go to school. I never liked school. I didn’t think I had any intelligence at all. . .This is a big shit sandwich, and I have to take a bite out of it.”

Pody told him something she had become practiced at saying: “I have a feeling you are smarter than you think. You are going to be okay.” They talked about Blackhawk’s business management program—maybe to lead him to run a restaurant, after all. He took the COMPASS test, a check the college requires of all new students to gauge their proficiency at reading, writing and math. To get into business management, he needed a math score of at least 43; he got a 76—and a 99 each for reading and writing.

Many of the people who’d lost jobs arrived on campus with a single-minded desperation to find something—anything—that would pay them the most money in the least time, whether the field suited them or not. Back on the assembly line, “they were working all day and not talking to anybody,” Kennedy said, “and now they want to be a nurse? That’s all about communication.” Complicating matters, at Blackhawk, as at two-year colleges around the country, nursing, which pays well, is so popular a field of study that it takes two or three years to get into required courses—longer than someone without a job often can afford to wait.

Blackhawk’s counselors all have stories of students who chose a program for the potential pay down the road—only to reappear after a few weeks of classes for advice on finding a more appropriate direction. Those, that is, who got in to see a counselor. The college hired one mental health counselor temporarily. For academic advising, it has three counselors at its main campus, plus Jorgenson at a small satellite in a town called Monroe, 40 miles to the west. Of the laid-off people who arrived from 2008 to 2010, Kennedy estimated, perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent saw a counselor one-on-one. “We had group orientations with 200 people in them,” she said. “We had no capacity to serve these people.”

Of all the strains on the college as laid-off workers rushed in, the one that surprised Blackhawk’s staff the most was that so many were unable to use a computer—didn’t know how to turn one on. There were students, Pody said, who dropped out within days of realizing they could not submit hand-written class papers. “I didn’t want anything to do with that Devil machine,” recalled Kath, whose ex-wife had always done anything that required a computer at home. Before starting classes, he bought a laptop but had still never sent an email. In one of its many adaptations, Blackhawk started a sort of computer boot camp.

Kath is to graduate next spring. Between classes, he calls his eight-year-old daughter Dayle. “Did you work on your spelling? Did you work on your math book?” he asked her one afternoon. He wants Dayle to see her father graduate. He’s had a plan to go in with a friend who has an Italian beef shop but is no longer sure that will work out. So far, he’s found only an unpaid internship at a company that makes bottles for Coca Cola. Still, his grades have been so good that he will get his associates’ degree with honors. “I’m tickled pink,” he said.

Fighting the Failure to Graduate

When Kath gets his degree, he will become, like Mike Vaughn, part of a minority. Just one-third of the dislocated workers who enrolled at Blackhawk managed to graduate, our analysis found. Low as that is, it happens to be exactly the rate at which students graduate from community colleges nationwide, according to recent estimates. And that is another reason that retraining laid-off people doesn’t always work.

People who graduated were no more likely to be working, we found, than those who did not – probably because of a quirk in which some dislocated workers who had been in school left if they were fortunate enough to find a job. Still, completing an academic program is widely recognized to be useful, and Kennedy is mindful of the pressure on two-year colleges around the country to graduate more of their students. And try as Blackhawk has, she thinks that such recommendations, issued lately by various think tanks and advocacy groups, “are not appropriate for the student population we have. I’m sorry, I would love to have better graduation rates,” she told me, “but look at who the students are. We get some very smart students – but they have not been academically successful in the past…We have a lot of first generation students who reluctantly come.”

Of the 1,740 dislocated workers we looked at, one in three needed to take remedial classes before they were allowed to start an academic program, compared with one in five of their classmates who hadn’t lost a job. The main reason? They hadn’t been in a classroom for a long time. The average age of the dislocated workers, we found, was 36, more than a dozen years older than the other students on campus at the time.

These differences – in age, readiness for college, sheer desperation for a job – were the reason behind the most unusual, ambitious step that Blackhawk took on behalf of some of the laid-off people who were arriving in droves. With help from Wisconsin’s senior senator, Herb Kohl, a Democrat, the college won the $2 million federal earmark from Congress to create a program called Career and Technical Education (CATE) to heap extra help on a small batch of its dislocated workers.

It started in early 2010 with just 125 students, who were divided into two groups. Some were ready for college. The others read, wrote or did math the way 6th to 9th graders should. Each group was steered into just a few kinds of training that, in the judgment of college officials and Borreman’s Job Center, were the most promising fields for finding a job. The ready-for-college students had a choice between IT and clinical lab technology. The unready students got more: a semester of extra class time, special tutors, 20 hours on campus each week—“a lot of handholding,” Kennedy said. After that, they got 10 weeks of training – enough for a certificate but not a degree -- to work as a nursing assistant or welder, or in business.

Such concentrated efforts, Kennedy believes, are what it will take for colleges such as Blackhawk to improve graduation rates. But it’s expensive. “I don’t know if we ever can bring something like CATE to scale,” she said. The possibility seems especially remote now because Blackhawk, like many two-year colleges, is financially distressed. It still has nearly as many students as it did just after the layoffs, and its budget has been shrinking. Last year, Gov. Walker persuaded the Wisconsin legislature to cut the state’s share of technical colleges’ funding by 30 percent, and to forbid local governments, which contribute a larger share, to increase their tax levies for the colleges. As a result, Blackhawk has eliminated programs in aviation mechanics and supervisory management, and cut nine members of its staff.

'The Best-Trained Unemployed Person in the Area'

Even among the people who got into CATE and others trained in those fields that Janesville’s job-training experts think are best, some people still aren’t finding work. Graduates in a few areas, such as clinical lab technology and welding, are getting jobs, colleges administrators told me. Not everyone is so fortunate. We compared all the unemployed students—the CATE people and everyone else -- who had studied in these promising areas with the unemployed students who had studied something else. Of the people who had trained for the promising fields, slightly less than two-thirds earned some pay in the year that ended last summer, while the rest were not working – exactly the same as proportions as everyone else.

“So much depends on who is hiring and when,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know how many IT positions were vacant” exactly when the first CATE graduates were ready for a job.

Richell McWilliams (Amy Goldstein)

Gauging when a field will ripen can be tricky. Consider Richell McWilliams, 49, a red-haired mother of five who had been making nearly $100,000 a year at General Motors as a journeyman electrician--one of the plant’s elite skilled trades. “I’m like the best-trained unemployed person in the area,” she told me. As a young woman, she had graduated from Blackhawk with an electronic technology degree. Later, she was an assistant instructor there and taught some apprenticeship classes at the GM plant. When the plant was closing, she qualified for an $80,000 buyout. She accepted a job as a temporary instructor at another technical college, in Madison, where she taught five classes for $5,000 apiece. But a year later, when that job ended, she said, “I was behind everybody else, because if there were a couple jobs out there, those people had gotten them.”

As she worried about what to do next, McWilliams read about sustainability and green jobs and the Obama administration’s eagerness to create them. “That would be the next thing that would take off,” she remembers thinking. “I’ll be ready when the jobs come.” McWilliams was so motivated that, when she found that no nearby university offered a degree in renewable energy, she pieced together one, taking courses on-line and at several area schools, including Blackhawk. After that, she took short “training modules,” to qualify her to go into different kinds of companies and teach environmentally sound practices. As she and I spent an afternoon chatting on her back deck, she showed me a blue plastic ring binder with her renewable energy diploma and all the training certificates she has racked up since she was laid off – 37 of them.

McWilliams knows first-hand that green jobs are not arriving as fast as the White House would like. She scours job listings but hasn’t found much to apply for. “There is nothing in the area,” she says, “that is paying like comparable or even half wages to what I was earning.”

She works a day now and then under a grant Blackhawk has, to train local companies in environmentally sound practices. In the meantime, she and her family have been living on the $45,000 a year her husband is paid as maintenance crew leader at the Rock County jail—and about $100,000 in savings they’ve gone through. “President Obama had indicated there would be all kind of those jobs,” McWilliams says, “but I am still waiting on that.”

Taking a Shine to SHINE Medical

As dislocated workers such as McWilliams strive to become workers again, perhaps the single thing that makes their struggle most poignant is how hard Janesville has been trying to bring jobs to town. And as the White House and policy specialists elsewhere nudge two-year colleges to step up their game, to work in lockstep with local business to turn out people with skills in demand for the jobs that exist, Blackhawk is a real role model.

A month before the General Motors plant’s final day, Rock County’s economic development leaders formed a broad alliance called CORD (Collaborative Organizations Responding to Dislocation.) Blackhawk was part of it. In March 2009, a month before Mike Vaughn’s final day at Lear, CORD brought in representatives of seven agencies each from the federal government and the state for a brainstorming workshop. In July, 2010, Ed Montgomery, at the time the head of the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, traveled to Janesville to talk about rebuilding the local economy. CORD also brought consultants from the University of Michigan’s Community Economic Adjustment Program, who have helped dozens of places around the country devise recovery strategies after their economies have been knocked askew. “There have been few examples of community collaboration,” the Michigan consultants wrote, “like the one occurring in Rock County as a result of the massive automotive manufacturing dislocations in the city of Janesville.”

Long before it became politically fashionable – and economically urgent -- Wisconsin has required each of its technical colleges to keep a business advisory committee for each of its academic programs; Blackhawks’ advisors meet three or four times a year. Last December, Blackhawk convened a business-education seminar. CEOs and human resource managers from local companies, such as United Alloy, Inc., a custom metal fabricator in town, sat with college administrators and instructors for blunt talk about what kind of skills they want when they hire.

Blackhawk’s focus reaches beyond companies that already exist. “What’s really good in a small town,” Kennedy said, “is the economic development people call you and say, ‘Sharon, we’ve got someone who is interested. This is their field, what do you have for them, and can you get back to me in 72 hours?’ And we do.” Blackhawk has been involved in Janesville’s courtship of a manufacturer of medical isotopes, called SHINE Medical Technologies, a start-up based in Madison. The planned facility would offer more than 100 jobs but not until 2015 at the earliest, and it faces regulatory hurdles. Still, the college already has developed a proposed curriculum for general education and manufacturing courses and Lakeshore Techical College, in the northeast part of the state, would create a nuclear-science curriculum. After a story appeared in the Janesville Gazette about this possibility, Kennedy said, “Our switchboard was lit up.”

Despite Blackhawk’s sturdy relationship with local businesses, companies are not always willing to participate. More than a year ago, Blackhawk’s president, Tom Eckert, announced a public-private partnership to turn an empty factory in town into a state-of-the art facility to teach advanced manufacturing. The idea fits with a federal program to invest in new manufacturing technologies as a way of improving the country’s global competitiveness. The National Science Foundation offers colleges grants for such projects, but they require private investments from local businesses up front. “Tom has been meeting with a bunch of CEOs,” Kennedy said. “They are very reluctant to do it. No one wants to go first. . . We have been talking about this for a year. You get people’s expectations up.” This summer, Eckert announced that the college would postpone the project and consider whether it might be less expensive at another site.

The Hurdle of the Long Commute

Innovative efforts, in other words, are not the same as results. Rock County became Wisconsin’s first to certify empty commercial and industrial buildings as “shovel ready” sites that could attract new employers. So far, the three shovel-ready office parks are largely empty.

In January, St. Mary’s Janesville Hospital opened, prompting the single largest hiring burst of the past few years. According to Joan Neeno, a spokewoman for the hospital, 13,000 applications arrived for 350 openings. Some people applied for every job available. Because it is new, Neeno says, “We needed people who could hit the ground running. We couldn’t really bring people up to speed and train them as their first job.” So of the 350 hires, the human resource director there knows of just three—two in the medical lab and an engineer who became a nurse—who had been laid off and retrained at Blackhawk. Even though the human resource director sits on the college’s governing board.

The county’s economic development director, James Otterstein, thinks the people coming out of Blackhawk, and others in town who still need work, must consider longer commutes. If jobs are still not coming back in Janesville, signs of economic life, he believes, are stirring within an hour’s drive in Madison and in Illinois and Iowa. The Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill., downsizing when Kath left, recently announced it was hiring 1,800 workers to build a new compact car.

Jeremy Torpy, an extroverted 40-year-old, thought hard about one of those Chrysler jobs. He had always liked computers. When he started at Blackhawk the fall of 2008—weeks after he lost his GM job of 13 years—he looked at the college’s charts of likely salaries in various fields and decided to learn to become an IT network specialist. He studied programming and routers, ports and protocols. Afterwards, he bounced through a couple of jobs, including one giving computer advice by telephone on a customer service line. He disliked it so much he quit. He thought he was going to get hired as an IT network administrator in an organic foods company in northern Wisconsin – a job with health benefits, free bread and milk, and even a masseuse who comes in once a week. His interview was on February 10, 2010 – a lucky day, he thought, because February 10, 1997, was his GM anniversary. He thought he had a great interview — but didn’t get the job. So he has been working at Woodman’s Market, first bagging groceries and now wrapping ground beef and slicing deli meats.

When he heard that Chrysler was hiring, he applied. He took a drug test, drove to Chicago for a physical and got a notice to report at 6 one February morning for new employee orientation. And the more he thought about it, the less sense it all made—driving two hours a day roundtrip to go back into an auto plant, making—when he figured in the gas—not much more than half what he had been paid at GM. At Woodman’s, he’s gotten a raise, so he makes $13.50 an hour, a little more than than his pay 15 years ago, before General Motors, as an assistant manager at Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor. But after 15 months at Woodman’s, he will get good health insurance. In the meantime, he keeps looking for another job. This summer, he found an IT internship. On his laptop, he keeps careful track of each application, and each job he doesn’t get, using the Excel skills that he learned at Blackhawk.

Of Magic and Magicians

When Obama and Romney and Ryan talk of job retraining as a salve for unemployment, they do not mention people like Jeremy Torpy, who hasn’t been able to translate what he studied into relevant work. Or Richell McWilliams, who aimed for a kind of job that hasn’t yet arrived. Or Mike Vaughn, who has a new job he loves at half his old pay. They do not mention the two-thirds of community college students who never finish. Or that it can take heroic, expensive efforts for a college to help people who arrive on campus grieving lost jobs and shattered lives, panicky to regain their old pay however they can, rusty at writing and math, having no idea how to send an email or use Word.

Across the ideological spectrum, in other words, the politics of job retraining are easier than the reality of job retraining, as I found it in Janesville.

So what then?

At the moment, alongside the political fervor for retraining is a quiet acknowledgement that, at the very least, it must be done better. And that means that the link between two-year colleges and actual jobs must become even tighter. There are competingvisions for how to accomplish this. One camp favors programs—the best known of them called Georgia Works—that put unemployed people into real but sometimes-unpaid jobs for a few months while they get trained. The idea is that, once in a workplace, these people are more likely to keep working.

Others, such as a group called Jobs for the Future, urge colleges to employ “real-time intelligence,” using data-mining and other technologies to keep track of online job ads—to tailor their training programs continually to the shifting demands of the labor market.The uncomfortable reality is that more tightly targeted training may not be enough. Obama speaks often of a mismatch between the skills that companies need and would-be workers possess. This idea of a “skills gap” holds out the hope that, if unemployed people simply study the right things, they will flow into the workforce. Not everyone agrees. Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says the skills mismatch, while real, is not the whole story. At the moment, he points out, the country has 3million to 4 million job openings. It has more than 20 million people who could use a job, considering people who are unemployed, holding part-time jobs because that’s all they could find, or so discouraged that they’ve stopped hunting for work.

“Training doesn’t create jobs,” Carnevale told me. “Jobs create training. And people get that backwards all the time. In the real world, down at the ground level, if there’s no demand for magic, there’s no demand for magicians.”

The last time the United States was enjoying a truly magical economy was at the end of the 1990s, in the final years of the Bill Clinton Administration, when forces converged – briefly – to produce the lowest unemployment rates in a generation (under 4 percent). Readily available money, moderate oil prices, and the rapid commercialization of the Internet fed a broad-based boom. Employers scrambled to find workers, settling, in some cases, for people whom they wouldn’t have considered just a few years earlier — and to whom they provided expensive training. In April 2000, 64.7 percent of the American population above the age of 16 was employed, the highest ratio since at least 1948.

The best solution, in other words, is to find the macro-level economic alchemy that will generate jobs – even in places such as Janesville, which has lost so many. And 4 1/2 years after Obama spoke inside the hulking Janesville Assembly Plant (he has never come back to town, since it closed), their competing philosophies for how to restore robust economic growth are a main cleavage point between Democrats and Republicans as the presidential campaigns lean into their final weeks. Obama still speaks optimistically of the economic approach embodied by the stimulus plan he pushed through Congress the winter he took office, weeks after the Janesville Assembly Plant shut down. His opponents put their faith in the free market. “That means get the government out of the way, unleash entrepreneurs,” Ryan, Janesville native son, said in a campaign speech in Roanoke, VA, in August.

For the moment, neither view has yet altered the world of Sharon Kennedy, who is proud of the work that Blackhawk is doing, but knows how hard it really is. Or the world of Bob Borremans, at the Job Center inside the old K-Mart, whose staff is, nearly four years after so many jobs at General Motors and elsewhere in town went away, still seeing new clients who want government money to go back to school—more often now, people who’ve run through their unemployment benefits. “We’ve probably had $9 million to $10 million in training [subsidies] in this county the past couple years,” Borremans told me one day. “It’s very frustrating, because you find people who took the advice you gave them, and now you are in a situation where I don’t know if their life is necessarily better.”

And as they tussle over how to create jobs, neither Democrats nor Republicans have an incentive to acknowledge the real possibility that job retraining – neatly as it fits within our cultural beliefs – may not always be able to lead laid-off Americans everywhere back to their old pay. Or back to work at all.

Amy Goldstein is a staff writer on leave from the Washington Post, focusing on Janesville, Wis., as a microcosm of the effects of vanished jobs on people and the places where they live. The Joyce Foundation, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, and ProPublica have provided support. She can be reached at [email protected].

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