Home / Commentary / EDITORIAL: Never mind who will work in the Foxconn plant. Who will work on it?

EDITORIAL: Never mind who will work in the Foxconn plant. Who will work on it?

Gov. Scott Walker’s administration announced plans in January for a $1 million marketing campaign to persuade young Chicagoans to move north to the Badger State.

Some of the new transplants wooed in this way will no doubt end up working for Foxconn once the Taiwanese technology giant opens its new factory in Mount Pleasant. But with 10,000 construction workers also needed for the project, state officials might want to put a little more thought into finding people to work on the new plant, not just in it.

Foxconn officials have set themselves a goal of having Wisconsin residents work 70 percent of the man hours needed to build the Foxconn plant. That means that if every person building the plant put in the same number of hours with no overtime or time off for injury or illness — an unlikely prospect — 7,000 Wisconsin construction workers would be needed.

That’s a lot for an industry that employed about 122,000 Wisconsinites in March, according to seasonally adjusted numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the people now in the industry, the vast majority can safely be presumed to be already working on projects; otherwise, they’d be laid off. Bringing an additional 7,000 people into the construction workforce would mean increasing the total by nearly 6 percent.

Good luck.

True, not all these people will be needed at once. The work on Foxconn’s factory is expected to stretch over four to five years. That will give contractors some time to get newcomers up to speed.

Still, a few years of experience will hardly be enough to prepare someone for a project as complex as Foxconn’s $10 billion plant.

And there are other reasons for questioning Foxconn’s hiring goals. Employment statistics, for one, tell a cautionary tale.

Wisconsin has long felt the pinch of a labor shortage in its construction industry. The state’s construction unemployment rate — which counts jobless people who last worked in construction — hit a record low in November when it fell to 5.7 percent.

As economists would predict, pay has been on the rise. Nationally, contractors were paying $29.63 an hour on average in April, a number up 3.5 percent from the same month a year before. That should help draw people to the industry.

But better compensation might not be enough by itself. That’s especially true when unemployment rates are at historic lows throughout the country. Wisconsin’s own rate was at an all-time low of 2.9 percent in both February and March.

When officials in North Dakota needed a great deal of construction work done a few years ago to support their state’s fracking boom, they were able to find thousands of workers who were willing to leave their homes and, drawn by the prospect of good pay, set up “man camps” in remote places. But that was when the country was still in a recession. Times have changed.

If the labor shortage wasn’t enough of a sign, Wisconsin’s historically low unemployment shows as well as anything that people who want to work are already working. And with wages rising in industries other than construction, people have less reason now than they had even a few years ago to consider leaving their jobs to embark on a new career in the trades.

Even officials working on the Foxconn project appear to question whether they’ll really be able to get 70 percent of the man hours needed for the plant from Wisconsin residents. Their stated goal is really more of a guideline, since it would impose no penalty should the company fail to meet it.

With unemployment so low in this state and the construction industry suffering such a protracted labor shortage, project officials were probably wise not to set a hiring mandate. But it’s time to acknowledge that the Wisconsin construction industry’s labor shortage isn’t going away anytime soon and take steps to make sure workers can be brought in from elsewhere if they can’t be found here.

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