By Tom Still

STURTEVANT, Wis. – During a presentation comparing South Carolina’s experience with BMW to what’s about to happen in Racine County with Foxconn, I asked listeners if they knew anyone – family, friend or neighbor – who lived in southeast Wisconsin and trekked to northern Illinois daily for work.

Almost every hand in the crowd of nearly 100 people shot up.

The reply underscored why educators and other experts believe it’s possible to fill most of the projected 13,000 Foxconn jobs over time with people who already live in Wisconsin. For many who already call southeast Wisconsin home, commuting to northern Illinois for work is routine. So why not work closer to home if a comparable or better job is available?

That’s just one of the workforce strategies discussed Thursday during a session at Gateway Technical College’s Sturtevant campus, which has been a hub of activity related to the nearby Foxconn manufacturing site. If a theme for workforce development stood out, it was “Wisconsin First.”

“Let’s take care of our own first,” said UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone, one of three panelists who spoke after a University of South Carolina economist charted the effect of BMW’s move to that state in the mid-1990s. “We can really put a lot of people in Wisconsin to work… This is a long game.”

Mone is leading a partnership of nearly two-dozen colleges, universities and tech colleges in southeast Wisconsin in an unprecedented effort to respond to the Foxconn project – as well as the workforce challenges facing other Wisconsin employers. He and others agreed those challenges are forcing a lot of businesses and institutions to raise their game.

“It’s causing higher education to do things we’ve never done before,” Mone said. “Foxconn is the starting point. Everybody will benefit.”

Trade expert Roxanne Baumann of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership cited a “revolution of cooperation” in Wisconsin with leaders, saying: “Now is the moment to level up and meet the challenge.”

David Vasko, head of applied technology for Rockwell Automation, said the Foxconn development is driving innovation and workforce development. “These are things we should probably be doing anyway. We are going to have to make the workers we have more productive,” he said.

With more than 200,000 students enrolled in southeast Wisconsin’s colleges and universities, Mone said an obvious goal is to keep as many as possible in the state. Other strategies include training recently returned veterans and people who may have dropped out of the workforce. About a third of Wisconsin’s eligible workforce doesn’t work, usually by choice.

The discussion came after economist Joey Von Nessen described what happened to the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina after BMW, the German automaker, decided to open an American assembly plant. The targeted investment of $600 million and 2,000 jobs grew to 10,000 jobs and a “multiplier effect” that spread to a statewide supply chain that has now attracted Volvo.

“They (BMW) definitely under-promised and over-delivered,” Von Nessen said.

The creation of “hidden clusters” in South Carolina in the wake of the BMW move helped attract Boeing to Charleston, expand the port infrastructure in Charleston to increase trade, and develop a more responsive education system, Von Nessen added. Attracting BMW was controversial, at first, because of state tax incentives. Not today.

“I don’t think you can find any policy maker or business leader that would” regret the decision, Von Nessen said, even if some amount of patience was required.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the Foxconn road or that people can expect secondary development to all happen organically, he added, but for Wisconsin, “there are all sorts of additional opportunities out there.”

If those opportunities truly put “Wisconsin First,” the South Carolina success story can be duplicated here in time.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which jointly produced the Sturtevant forum with WisPolitics/ He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.