In late August, days after becoming the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan stood near center court in the gym at the Wisconsin high school he graduated from a quarter-century ago. “You know, we’ve been hit pretty hard here,” the congressman told relatives, neighbors and a couple thousand others squeezed onto risers for a rally to send him off from the small city of Janesville to the Republican National Convention. “But we are a hardy people, and we will recover from this.”
When Ryan was growing up, the soul of the local economy was the Janesville Assembly Plant, where General Motors started out making tractors and in 1923 began to build cars. In early 2008, when Barack Obama was first running for president, he gave a major economic address near the medium-duty truck line on the aging plant’s second floor, declaring that “if our government is there to support you . . . this plant will be here for another hundred years.”
Two days before Christmas that year, the plant shut down. Nearly 3,000 GM employees were among more than 5,000 casualties of mass layoffs that cascaded through town, washing away jobs at companies that had supplied parts and services to GM, then hitting unrelated businesses that could not withstand the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who lost their job at the plant,” Ryan reminded the crowd in the gym. “One of my buddies, he went to Blackhawk Tech. Afterwards, he got an HVAC contracting degree. And now . . . he’s got a great career, and he’s happy. . . . That’s the kind of thing we need to do: Pick ourselves up, help people who need, give them the job-training skills they [have to] have.”
The idea of teaching new skills to laid-off workers is a rare economic policy on which the two major political parties agree, eager as they are to offer a salve for unemployment. During the first presidential debate this month in Denver, Obama praised the “great work” that community colleges are doing “to train people for jobs that exist right now.” The GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, said federal money must help workers “get in the training they need for jobs that will really help them.”
This unlikely bipartisan agreement fits with an abiding cultural belief, since America’s founding, in the United States as the land of personal reinvention. And it keeps faith with a deep-etched understanding that education is the key to upward mobility.
But does retraining actually work?
Janesville, a city of 63,000 near the Illinois line, is a singularly useful place to look for answers. Since General Motors set off the cascade that knocked thousands of people out of their jobs, this community, in many ways, has been doing everything right. Blackhawk Technical College, the small, two-year school that Ryan mentioned, is exactly the kind of place that federal officials and other policy specialists have in mind to help unemployed people get back to work. It teaches students to be welders, IT specialists, medical lab technicians and so forth, relying on partnerships with local businesses to navigate displaced workers into fields in which jobs seem most likely to exist.