Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 5 of 14)

This is the fifth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover four chapters from Part Two (2009) of Janesville (Blackhawk, Ahead of the Class, A Plan and Distress Signals, and The Holiday Food Drive).

Goldstein’s not polemical, and her descriptions are more subtle than they would be for those who are more acerbic. Yet in these chapters, one finds unmistakable signs of how she feels about the (false) promise of many job training programs:

Training people out of unemployment is a big, popular idea. In fact, it may be the only economic idea on which Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Democrats such as President Obama agree, anchored, as it is, in an abiding cultural myth, going back to America’s founding, of this as a land that offers its people a chance at personal reinvention. The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment. Still, there is a lack of political consensus that the government should invest in creating jobs, and there is very much a consensus that it should help displaced workers go back to school.

Others might have said this more pointedly, but she says it plainly, and plainly enough.

An anecdote about Matt Wopat, a laid off auto worker and son of a retired auto worker, shows how oddly unfocused job-counseling is:

Matt took a test called JobFit that gauged his learning style (visual/verbal, it turned out), his numerical skill (rapid grasp of numerical information), and his sociability (comfortable working with a group or individually). Matt was then issued a “Career Compatibility Passport,” which told him that he would be equally adept as a database developer, a podiatrist, or a registered nurse—his best fits out of a list of fifty occupations for which he was well suited, with horticulturist and software engineer not far behind.

Next to a box indicating that he was being recommended for a training program, a Job Center caseworker handwrote about Matt: “Currently undecided.”

Wopat wants a job, and both he and society would benefit if he had one, yet a program that recommends wildly disparate occupations as equally suitable will hardly be of much help. There’s something both sad, infuriating, and vacuous in the results the Career Compatibility Passport provides.

Worse is the local conceit, though, that the work of a banker Mary Willmer and billionaire building-supply magnate Diane Hendricks through Rock County 5.0 will be more than a drop in the bucket. Here’s the Willmer and Hendricks effort:

Just before Halloween, they decide the time is right. Rock County 5.0 has not yet reached the goal of $1 million in private support. But it is $400,000 along the path. Respectable. And the project now has five well-defined, five-year strategies to buttress its 5.0 name: persuading local companies to stay and expand, attracting new businesses, offering special help to small businesses and start-ups, preparing real estate for commercial uses, and forging a workforce that employers will want to hire. This is the hopeful vision of Rock County from a business-centric point of view: moving beyond Janesville’s automotive identity.

Remember, though, that to keep the plant, alone, mostly public entities were willing to offer the “biggest incentive package in Wisconsin history” (“The package adds up to $195 million: $115 million in state tax credits and energy-efficiency grants, the $20 million that Marv Wopat pushed through the county board, $15 million from the strapped Janesville city government, and $2 million from Beloit, plus private industry incentives, including from the businesses willing to buy out the tavern in the assembly plant’s parking lot. And that isn’t counting concessions worth $213 million that UAW Local 95 is willing to sacrifice in exchange for retrieving jobs.”)

The point isn’t that government should have offered so much (after all five times the amount left winning bidder Orion, Michigan with much less than that for which she bargained).

The point is that it is hardly credible that Janesville’s private sector was so poorly capitalized that it could only offer 0.5% of what state and local entities offered. (Indeed, at the time of the Rock County 5.0 innaugural announcement, a partial offer of only $400,000, or 0.2%, of hundreds of millions in public offers.)

Goldstein knows as much, that in 2009 Rock County 5.0 isn’t what it’s touted to be:

“It will change the culture within Rock County, long-term,” Mary is quoted as saying….

This is a victory for Mary. And yet, from her perch at M&I Bank, she can’t escape noticing unmistakable signals that some members of her community are having a hard time keeping their lives glued together.”

A hard time, indeed.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 6 of 14).

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