In June, President Donald Trump stuck a gold-colored shovel in a Wisconsin field, breaking ground on an enormous factory for the Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn. The company negotiated nearly $4 billion in tax incentives in exchange for creating 13,000 jobs and $10 billion in investments. But last week, Foxconn announced a change in plans. Instead of hiring manufacturing workers to make flat-screen TVs, it would shift to research and development and engineering. A few days later, another surprise. After a talk with Trump, the company said it would go back to manufacturing. Sruthi Pinnamaneni has been following this back and forth for the podcast “Reply All.” Marketplace’s Tracey Samuelson asked her what she has heard from Mount Pleasant, the Wisconsin village where this massive plant is supposed to be built. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sruthi Pinnamaneni: People in the town were completely caught off guard. I spoke to one person who had been very much for the deal, very optimistic, and he said that he heard the news while he was at work and he had to sit down.
Tracey Samuelson: Can Foxconn just change its mind and build something else?
Pinnamaneni: So there was this idea that what was going to happen in Wisconsin was going to be almost a Disney World of future technologies. There would be this whole supply chain that would mushroom up around the factory and would create this very sophisticated high-tech wonderland. But [Foxconn] wouldn’t give any details of how they would actually pull that off, and there’s nothing in their contract that says what the mix of jobs needs to be.
Samuelson: How much does that matter in terms of the local area, the economy, the talent pool?
Pinnamaneni: It matters a lot because the entire reason that this site was selected is there are a number of workers who’ve lost jobs as assembly line plants have disappeared in the area. So [if] they switch to mostly engineering jobs, this site makes no sense.
Samuelson: So is there a better way to grow jobs there?
Pinnamaneni: One analyst that I spoke to said, “I go to Wisconsin a lot, and it’s a huge center for robotics.” He was thinking it might have made more sense for the state to say, “Hey, you know what, we want to bring tech jobs to the state, and we’re going to do that by supporting the companies that exist.” It’s just easier to develop this organically from the ground up. And so people should consider what are the kinds of industries that exist in the state, right now, that could actually take money from us and use it to just grow something that makes more sense here?