WIND POINT — There are no projects to compare the Foxconn Technology Group development to unless you look out of state. And one such place to do that is Reno, Nevada.
In 2014, Reno area landed the Tesla Gigafactory, which brought a whole new job sector to a region that, perhaps, was more known for the Comedy Central TV show “Reno 911” and was described by some as the “Detroit of the West” after the recession in 2008.
“Tesla really drew (other companies to the area),” said Bill Thomas, assistant city manager for Reno. “I think they put us on the map.”
Thomas said because of the Tesla development, the community was seeing roughly one new company per month come to the area.
“The big difference was it changed how the community looks at itself,” Thomas said. “(Tesla) changed the perspective of what Reno is.”
Before Tesla, people viewed Reno as a dying casino and tourism town, and Thomas said residents shouldn’t be surprised if Racine County’s reputation changes with Foxconn.
“What we’ve heard is Racine didn’t have the highest reputation, that’s what we’ve heard in the short time we’ve been here,” Thomas said. “Reno didn’t either. But all of a sudden you become the shinny object ... which is a different place to be.”
Thomas, along with other officials from Nevada, spoke to a group of elected officials and community leaders last week at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread to give them some insight into how Tesla changed their community and what the greater Racine community can do to prepare for Foxconn.
Finding the employees
The Foxconn project plans to employ up to 13,000 people in the state, with a majority of those jobs in Racine County.
As Reno was preparing for Tesla, which plans to employ 6,500 people at its Gigafactory in nearby Sparks, Nevada, the community needed to train and provide the workforce necessary to fill those jobs.
Zachary Kumler worked at the Gigafactory and was tasked with helping recruit 3,000 people to work at the facility making batteries for Panasonic. He has since left the Gigafactory and started his own company called Alpha Roster.
Kumler said he went to high schools, colleges, unemployment offices, anywhere he and his team could go to recruit people for Tesla.
“I originally started looking to other states because we needed to get experience first, and even though we wanted as much home-grown experience, we were not able to do that,” Kumler said.
Some residents have been concerned that many of the jobs planned for the Mount Pleasant Foxconn facility might go to non-Racine County residents.
“Unfortunately that is a big truth,” Kumler said about the prospect of outside workers coming to work at Foxconn.
Along with recruiting workers, Kumler and his team helped put together programs that would educate potential workers for jobs at Tesla. However, developing those educational pathways took longer than expected.
Kumler said if he could, he would go back in time to start developing their educational programs two years earlier in order to help meet the demand for Tesla, and he suggests the Racine community start preparing now to train people for Foxconn.
“It is difficult. There is a lot of processes that need to be put in place but you have all the talent you need right here,” Kumler said. “It’s just how you attract (potential workers), how you place them into those programs and how you manage that.”
Foxconn has committed $1 million to public and private universities and colleges with the goal of tapping into the local talent for their workforce as part of their Smart City, Smart future initiative.
Other institutions like the Racine Unified School District and Gateway Technical College have also taken note as to the types of skills Foxconn is requesting for potential employees to work at their facility.
Building the workforce
Mike Kazmierski, president/CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said it is up to the local institutions to provide the training to “meet the company’s needs.”
“The company needs certain skills and if the community doesn’t raise the bar and train the workforce to meet their needs, they’re going to fill it some other way,” Kazmierski said. “In some cases, you may be attracting workers to help your existing industries because they lost employees. So don’t think it’s just Foxconn that you’re developing talent for, you’re developing talent to help all of your existing companies remain competitive and successful.”
Finding a balance between training people for work at Foxconn and training people for other jobs besides Foxconn is a task that is easier said than done.
John Thurman is CEO of Nevada Works, which is a regional organization that works to “provide employers in Northern Nevada with a skilled, productive workforce that supports the economic needs of local communities.”
Thurman said the impact of those training programs will likely be felt beyond Foxconn.
“That system is not just going to produce employees for Foxconn,” Thurman said. “They’re going to be producing employees for all the businesses that are already here, Foxconn, and all those that are going to be here.”
Thurman said for those who are currently unemployed, “they want employment yesterday, not tomorrow.”
“They’re more interested in that immediate reward from employment than they are from the educational aspects that will get them a better paying job in the future,” Thurman said. “In your area with 2 million people to draw from, essentially, with 4 percent unemployment that’s 80,000 people and that’s way more than enough to fill 13,000 jobs. The fact is even if all 80,000 are job ready, you’re lucky if 13,000 truly want to go work at Foxconn … the system has to prepare people for all jobs.”