What can we learn about Career Preparation from Janesville Wisconsin?

Washington Post social policy journalist Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, an American Story is a book about a once prosperous Wisconsin town with a General Motors plant as its long-time major employer. In the middle of the recent great recession, without much notice, GM announced it was closing the plant. This is a readable, if often painful, narrative of how that decision affected GM workers, Janesville families and the community at large. It is also about how a town that took pride in its unity across economic class and political parties, under these difficult circumstances became politically divided and unable to meet the needs of middle class residents who, suddenly unemployed, descended into poverty. It is also about local leaders and elected officials at state and federal levels, including U.S. Congressman, and now Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Goldstein describes a range of responses to the plant closing by laid-off workers and their families. She follows laid-off worker strategies such as: accepting GM jobs in other states and moving families there; becoming “GM Gypsies” in nearby states and returning home only for weekends and vacations; searching for jobs of any kind in Janesville; and enrolling in the Blackhawk community college retraining program for dislocated workers. The narrative follows the choices of several laid-off individuals and how their decisions turned out for them and their families. In the appendix, research data is provided on how one of those strategies worked out, enrolling in community college retraining.

Goldstein begins Appendix 2 this way: “Even among people who disagree about everything else about the economy, the common wisdom is that workers who lose a job, without much likelihood of finding another in the same field, should go back to school to train for a different one. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the retraining of such dislocated workers. However, research into whether this policy is useful is not extensive.” To study this question in the context of the laid-off GM workers in Janesville, Goldstein collaborated with Kevin Hollenbeck, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and labor economist, Laura Dresser, Associate Director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here are some of their findings:

  • Overall, one third of the laid-off workers who went to Blackhawk Community College completed their program of study within the expected time, only a little longer than other students on their campus.
  • Laid-off workers who went back to school were less likely to have a job after they retrained than those who had not gone to the community college retraining program. “Retraining did not translate into greater success at finding a job…. Worse still, more of those who retrained were not earning any money at all.”
  • The laid-off workers who retrained earned less afterward than those who did not. Before the recession the two groups’ incomes had been about the same.
  • The dislocated workers who found steady employment after retraining had wages a little higher than those of others who retrained, but much lower than those of steady workers who had not gone to school.
  • The laid-off workers who graduated from the community college retraining program earned more money than those who didn’t finish but, because they had had higher incomes beforehand, the completers had a bigger drop in pay than the non-completers.

What are we to make of these findings? Is this an indictment of federal spending on employment and training? I don’t think so. After all, this is only one study and doesn’t necessarily indicate a pattern for training or retraining programs. Also, these are dislocated workers in an industry that did not necessarily require post-secondary education or, in some cases, even completion of high school, at least for line workers. These were people who had felt secure in their jobs with relatively good wages and benefits because of the collective bargaining of their union. Many may not have had sufficient basic skills for a retraining program in a different field. Perhaps laid-off hospital workers who had had some post-secondary training, and additional on-the-job training, might fare better in a dislocated workers retraining program. Perhaps some employers in Janesville, or surrounding towns, were reluctant to hire the laid-off GM workers assuming, as had been true in the past, that the plant would re-open, and that the retrained workers might want to return to their former work. Perhaps the community college was overwhelmed with the sudden increase in applicants for retraining, a 54% surge in the number of students, and it was not prepared to deliver high quality training to this group. It’s hard to say.

However, what happened in Janesville could happen in other cities and towns, and very likely already has. One implication for adult basic skills educators, particularly for those who are preparing adult learners for career pathways, is how to prepare them well not only for work and a career, but also for loss of work and for changing careers should that be necessary. This implies teaching not only basic and occupational skills, but also work-related resourcefulness, and good problem-solving strategies, especially for work environments that now require a range of digital literacy skills. It also implies that students and workers need to know what community and government resources can help them, and how to access these services if they are laid off. The services, for example, include unemployment insurance, and food stamps. It implies that they need to know how to shop economically; how to re-negotiate a mortgage; and how to save, especially in good times, for lay-offs and other periods of employment difficulty. Financial literacy that addresses how to save, and how to build assets, is especially important in an economy where a career with steady work with good salaries and benefits may not be secure. It is also important to be psychologically prepared for these employment upheavals.

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