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As Foxconn changes Wisconsin plans, job promises fall short

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Foxconn's position shifted once again after the company, citing a conversation between Trump and Gou, said it would keep the manufacturing plans moving forward.

But still, the plans keep changing. Foxconn said the facility will now make smaller screens for smartphones and tablets, as opposed to large-screen TVs, reflecting changes in the global market.

The company also outlined construction plans over the next 18 months, which include a liquid crystal module packaging plant, a system integration assembly facility, a research and development center, and a town center to support people working in the park.

Reality meets the hype

Yet through all the talk, Foxconn fell short of the minimum 260 jobs needed by the end of 2018 to qualify for a portion of the first round of state incentives, and looks likely to miss its annual tax credit targets until at least 2020, raising questions about both the scale of the project, and the availability of qualified talent in southeastern Wisconsin.

"It's not surprising that Foxconn has had difficulty finding workers, as the labor market is very tight," said Noah Williams, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who wrote a favorable evaluation of the original Foxconn proposal.

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Shifting to a research and development focus may make it even harder for Foxconn to meet its hiring targets, with the pipeline of engineering graduates in Wisconsin not large enough to fill thousands of new jobs, Williams said.

In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that Foxconn, desperate for talent, considered bringing in engineering talent from China. The report drew a swift denial from Foxconn, but it underscored the hard sell the company faces as it tries to recruit against established tech hubs such as Silicon Valley.

Williams said the Chicago area is a better potential talent pool for Foxconn.

"If the labor in demand shifts toward more engineers and knowledge workers, then the (recruiting) problem ... would be even more difficult," Williams said. "There has been an effort to recruit from Illinois, and that is likely to intensify."

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