By Tom Still

JANESVILLE – Visitors at Blackhawk Technical College’s main campus south of Janesville notice one thing almost immediately as they walk its hallways: All of the classrooms are packed with students.

Much like other Wisconsin Technical College System campuses during this recession, Blackhawk is enrolling a surge of students who have lost jobs – or who have read the career-changing handwriting on the wall. They’re flocking back to school to learn new skills and trades. In Janesville, many of those returning students are “graduates” of the General Motors assembly plant.

With the end of production at GM’s Janesville plant, about 3,500 jobs automotive industry jobs have been lost in Rock County in the last year alone. About a third of those displaced workers from GM and its supply companies are taking classes at Blackhawk Tech, learning trades ranging from culinary arts to public protection to health care.

It’s a symbol of the fact that Janesville and Rock County, while hard hit by the loss of the GM plant, have no plans to turn out the lights on the community’s future.

Business and education leaders in Rock County are working to make sure former auto industry workers learn skills to re-enter the workforce, that entrepreneurs get help with their start-up companies, that efforts to attract new companies are carefully targeted, and that existing companies are encouraged to expand close to home.

Blackhawk President Eric Larson said strategies to help displaced workers have included more courses and course sections, flexible instructional times such as evenings and weekends, computer literacy workshops, support groups to ease the transition and hands-on help with filling out admission and financial aid forms. The enrollment bulge has led to the creation of “rapid-response” teams within the college – and even prompted a quick expansion of a parking lot.

After the GM closing was announced, UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer quickly agreed to open a Janesville satellite office of its Small Business Development Center to help entrepreneurs with financial evaluation, market planning, new product assessment, licensing advice and more.

A leading business voice is John Beckord, president of the Forward Janesville economic development group. Beckord has no interest as serving as a community undertaker – and, in fact, has helped map a plan to attract new employers, retain existing companies and generally diversify the region’s economy.

At a meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s board of directors, Beckord rattled off a list of Janesville-area companies engaged in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing to consumer products. He said Forward Janesville is focusing on existing strengths – such as food processing, metal fabrication, logistics and plastics – in reaching out with site location consultants and real-estate brokers who work with commercial and industrial clients.

The region has many advantages in the eyes of outsiders, Beckord said, but other states often offer financial incentive packages that few companies can afford to bypass. He urged Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature to make sure Wisconsin can compete – even if that starts with the medical adage of “first, do no harm.”

One asset on Janesville’s books is the GM plant itself, which is massive and, in some sections, modern. Power supply, two rail lines, easy access to Interstate 90 and a large amount of land could make it attractive to other businesses if GM ultimately decides not to reopen any portion of the plant.

About 4 percent of Janesville’s jobs and 6 percent of its disposable income were tied to the GM plant, and that’s a big chunk of any local economy to replace. It won’t happen overnight, but the pieces of Janesville’s economic recovery may be slowly falling into place.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.