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As Foxconn changes Wisconsin plans, job promises fall short

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

It's been 18 months since the Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn Technology Group announced to great fanfare that it was building a $10 billion factory to make TV screens on farmland in southeastern Wisconsin.

The plan was as big as it was audacious: Fueled with billions in taxpayers subsidies, Foxconn would build a 22 million-square-foot campus, filled with 13,000 highly paid workers. In the process, it would transform the sleepy village of Mount Pleasant, Wis., into a high-tech international manufacturing hub.

But a year and a half later, a central question remains: Where are the jobs?

Foxconn had only 178 employees on board as of December, missing its first year-end hiring target of 1,040 jobs and leaving millions of dollars in incentives on the table.

Billed as the largest greenfield investment by a foreign-based company in U.S. history based on job creation, the promises in the July 2017 memorandum of understanding between the state of Wisconsin and Foxconn were unequivocal. The project would create 13,000 jobs by 2032 on the sprawling Racine County site, at an average annual salary of nearly $54,000.

In return, the state offered Foxconn $3 billion in tax credits and other state incentives.

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With substantial changes being floated from the initial agreement -- notably, a greater emphasis on research and development -- there is growing doubt the company will reach its ambitious goal within 15 years, if ever.

"It doesn't strike me as a feasible project," said Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University. "How do you find 13,000 people that go to a facility like that?"

Labor experts say that the plant faces significant head winds if it is ever to meet its promised hiring goals. A low 3 percent unemployment rate in Wisconsin and intense competition nationally for high-tech labor have already proved challenging for Foxconn to lure talent to its nascent campus.

Filling new jobs was the central justification of devoting significant taxpayer resources, and the early hiring shortfall has left Foxconn and economic development officials scrambling to reassure taxpayers that everything is on track.

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