Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rock County Faces an Uncertain Future

I returned to Rock County to celebrate the holiday season with my family and was greeted with a series of articles and news briefs in our local paper about the final days of Janesville's GM plant.

Rock County unemployment on the rise by Stan Stricker says:

The latest state unemployment figures are out.

The seasonally unadjusted November unemployment rate for Janesville is 8.8%, up 1.1% from October, and 3 1/2% from a year ago. Beloit's November unemployment rate is 9.4%, up 1.1% from October, and 2 1/2% from a year ago. Rock county as a whole though, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development may be fairing a bit better.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate is 7.4%. up less than 1% from the month before.

The previous article highlights the relevant stats related to Rock County's rising unemployment rates, intimately connected to GM's impending closure and the slew of other factory shutdowns that have hit the area. Even without the newspaper coverage, the reality of Rock County's economy was written all over the faces of my family, neighbors, and community members. As we sit in the middle of the holiday season with Christmas just hours away, the impact of our economic recession hits even harder.

Steven Benton in "Life after GM" wrote:

[Beloit city manager Larry] Arft also says as the local economy is rebuilt, it will look a lot different. He says instead of one big manufacturer moving in, we'll probably see many smaller companies employing around 100 workers fill the void.

As we look ahead to the future, Arft's assessment comes as a mixed blessing--we are thrilled at the prospect of new jobs to employ our displaced workers, but are concerned about our local economy's shift to smaller, unknown companies. After speaking to local residents in Rock County, most of whom are displaced workers from GM, Lear, and the countless other local businesses who are down-sizing, common fears rise to the surface. Workers are concerned about whether their skills will be applicable in the new jobs, will they be hired or deemed "too old" (most have spent the better part of their careers at one job), will they and their families survive until the new jobs become available, and will the new jobs be sustainable and employ them until retirement.

Uncertainty has plagued the manufacturing industry to varying degrees for the last two decades, but it now seems that all we have come to count on in this industry will never be the same again. Hopefully the handful of things workers need in their employment will be present in the new jobs--job security, living wages, union protection, quality health care, retirement benefits, and on-the-job safety.

From the daughter of two displaced workers, I wish you all a merry Christmas and a brighter new year.

Warm wishes, Tillie

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