By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – With a half-dozen or so states reportedly in the running for a $10-billion Foxconn facility in the United States, Wisconsin’s chances of landing the plant are at least known: It’s still a longshot, but possible.

Even if Wisconsin does not become a U.S. home for Foxconn, a Taiwanese company best known for assembling Apple’s iPhones, it has the right ingredients to attract similar firms. That’s important in an age when “new collar” jobs offer a way up for workers with technology skills but little or no college education.

About two-thirds of American adults do not hold a college degree, which has left many in the cold as the number of traditional manufacturing jobs has declined – not only in the United States, but in Wisconsin, which has lost about 150,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.

That doesn’t mean those workers lack skills or the desire to rise and shine every business day. Many simply haven’t find the right fit in an economy that continues to transition, even as its grows.

A Foxconn plant in Wisconsin could potentially offer that kind of fit. If speculation is correct that Foxconn wants to build a display-making factory for electronic devices and television sets, the kinds of workers needed would be people accustomed to a manufacturing setting but armed with specific skills that don’t always come with a college degree.

Wisconsin’s education system is getting better at producing those kinds of workers. Four-year degrees are still important for many people, but two-year degrees, certifications, apprenticeships and other skills-based training opportunities are opening doors for younger and older workers alike.

It has begun to seep down into high schools and even middle schools, some of which are now home to fabrication laboratories – or “Fab Labs” – that offer students hands-on experience in technical areas sought by many businesses. In fact, Wisconsin has one of the largest concentration of Fab Labs outside Massachusetts, where the concept was born.

Researchers at LinkedIn, a business-oriented social media site, produce an annual ranking of “hard skills” most in demand. In 2016, the list was topped by cloud computing expertise, data mining and statistical analysis, smartphone app development, data storage engineering and management, user interface design and network security expertise.

By the way, the “soft skills” shopping list compiled by LinkedIn was headed by communication, curiosity, adaptability, teamwork, empathy, time management and open-mindedness. In other words, you might be a talented tech “geek” but you better come equipped with some social tools.

While many argue that Wisconsin has a looming worker shortage, many workers who are currently employed are also under-employed – meaning they may have the skills to move into skilled positions that don’t necessarily require a college degree. That’s an attractive labor force, not only for Foxconn, but for other global companies that may expand in the United States.

Samsung has said it will open an appliance factory in South Carolina, LG will do the same in Tennessee, BMW is expanding a current plant in South Carolina and other companies such as Alibaba are also responding to changing market conditions as well as political pressure to invest in the United States.

Much of that political pressure is personified by President Trump, who was elected last fall on a wave of discontent tied to the loss of American jobs. Wisconsin’s vote was carried by Trump.

In addition to its workforce potential, Wisconsin’s advantages when seeking to attract a company along the lines of Foxconn include:

  • A manufacturing tradition that extends to electronic devices, equipment and components.
  • Existing global companies well-versed in the “Internet of Things.”
  • Strong academic research components tied to computer sciences and engineering. Of special interest to Foxconn chairman Terry Gou may be Wisconsin’s expertise in biotechnology and oncology, as he recently invested in a partnership to fight cancer. Wisconsin is home to one of the oldest and best-known National Cancer Institutes.
  • Logical plant sites are available and there’s an infrastructure in place that would enable a company the size of Foxconn to deliver its products to market.

With a decision expected this summer, Wisconsin will know soon enough if it has wooed Foxconn. Either way, it will emerge ready for the next opportunity.