Has Foxconn Uncertainty Affected Wisconsin Manufacturing Students?

Feb 25, 2019

Questions and concerns arose about Foxconn’s plans in Racine County a couple of weeks ago. Reports surfaced that the company would be shifting its plans from manufacturing LCD screens to research and development. Then Foxconn said it was committed to manufacturing on the site — after a conversation with President Trump.

So, has the uncertainty affected the people training to work at those manufacturing plants? Gateway Technical College in Racine County collaborated with Foxconn on an advanced manufacturing curriculum — or what's called Industry 4.0. 

Places like Foxconn have smart-factories — manufacturing plants with an IT component. The factories connect their machines to the cloud and develop an industrial Internet of Things (IoT). This allows companies to take massive amounts of production and machine data and use it for decisionmaking. 

Smart sensors and machine uptime tracking can help maintenance groups plan predictive maintenance on equipment, reducing or eliminating costly downtime, and ensuring product flow that meets demand.

Last year, Foxconn partnered with Gateway Technical College to teach skills relating to smart factories. The goal is a talent pipeline from Gateway to Foxconn jobs. 

Students listen during the lecture portion of instructor Tony Lestan's advanced manufacturing course at Gateway Technical College.
Credit Maayan Silver

Instructor Tony Lestan starts with the industrial basics in one of Gateway’s Advanced Manufacturing courses, showing the students how to wire a simple circuit to turn a motor on and off. He says Gateway’s program was developed with Foxconn’s input. It's meant to help people prepare for work in a Foxconn plant, he says, but is not Foxconn-specific. 

“These are skills that are applicable everywhere, and what would really be tailored specifically to Foxconn is really not a part of this program," he says. "These are skills that everybody in hi-tech needs to get going, and then you typically learn those very specific skills on the job.”

But will students from Gateway take a hit if Foxconn does not create the 13,000 jobs the company has promised?

Gateway President Brian Albrecht says, "We still believe there will be thousands of jobs in manufacturing. It might be different product lines, or different ways that manufacturing is being built out."

"I think this is the program of the future," Albrecht continues. "Technology will continue to evolve the way products are produced. So, Industry 4.0 skillsets and knowledge bases are really going to be fundamental to all manufacturing."

"I think this is the program of the future," Gateway Technical College President Brian Albrecht says.

There are currently 25 students in Gateway’s Advanced Manufacturing program. Amber Heieren, from Burlington, Wis., is one of them. She works as a housekeeper, but a career counselor suggested Industry 4.0 manufacturing as a new path for her.

“I mean, [Foxconn jobs] definitely sparked my interest, but it’s more of the Industry 4.0 and how it’s changing,” she explains.

Heieren says, so far, it’s been introductory courses — nothing geared toward Foxconn itself. Yet, she still thinks it’s possible to land a Foxconn job.

"I’m hoping. I know they’re taking on paid internships for other students. I’m hoping with this degree because Foxconn asked for it, that it might be a possibility," she says.

Robotics in a lab at Gateway Technical College, which is part of the college's advanced manufacturing program.
Credit Maayan Silver

As far as Foxconn potentially shifting its plans?

“Yes, I did hear about that, but I’m not really concerned because of the industry in this area,” she says. Heieren feels flexible enough about the skills that she has — like robotics — that she can go elsewhere.

Gateway officials also say they are confident there will be multiple jobs available for each graduate of the program. MATC aims to start its Industry 4.0 programming in the fall. Officials from UWM also share Gateway's optimism when it comes to what Foxconn could do for southeastern Wisconsin. In fact, they sent 12 engineering students on an internship and study abroad program to Taiwan through the company.