Robert Phelps, right, in a culinary class. He worked at Lear, an auto supplier, in Janesville for 13 years before being laid off.
JANESVILLE, Wis.— Kevin Corkhill grew up in a time and place where manufacturing was king. But ever since he was laid off from the gargantuan General Motors plant here, Mr. Corkhill seems bewildered by what the future holds.
He still has not decided whether to try to transfer to another G.M. plant, change occupations or return to school. Visiting the local United Automobile Workers hall recently, Mr. Corkhill stopped by a musty display case to show his 8-year-old son a black-and-white photograph inside — it was Mr. Corkhill’s grandfather carrying an artillery shell made at the plant during World War II.
“My grandfather worked here, and my father worked here,” he said. “The one thing my father told me is you work hard to make things better for the next generation, but now I worry we won’t be able to do that anymore.”
He turned his head to hide his tears from his son.
In this city, the loss of the 90-year-old G.M. plant and its 2,500 jobs has created a swirling mixture of anger, confusion, worry and hurt, underscoring how the recession is raising anxiety among workers nationwide. Combined with the shuttering of several nearby suppliers, the G.M. closing meant a loss of 4,000 jobs in this city of 64,000.
Their union contract has given these workers more relief than many.
With few local employers hiring, more than 1,000 of those laid off have returned to school, seeking to reboot their lives by studying welding, nursing, cooking and other fields, thanks, in part, to the contract’s tuition assistance.
The contract also provides a substantial financial cushion: 48 weeks of unemployment benefits at three-quarters pay, and health insurance. But when that runs out, it will be hard for them to find jobs paying close to the $28 an hour they averaged assembling Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans and GMC Yukons.
“We found that 76 percent of the laid-off people we’ve worked with made $20 or more an hour,” said Robert T. Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, which helps retrain and find jobs for laid-off workers. “There aren’t many $20-an-hour jobs in the area. If people need that much to maintain their lifestyle, they’ll need to look elsewhere.”
The hope is that things will be better a year from now. “What surprises me is how resilient and optimistic a lot of people have been,” said Mr. Borremans, whose agency nearly fills a shuttered Kmart. “They’re willing to work and rebuild.”
Many are moving on. Kimberly Pope, after 30 years at G.M., where she worked as an electrician, has applied to train as a radiology technician. Bill Truman, a laid-off truck driver for a G.M. supplier, is planning to study logistics and warehouse management. Diane Kudrna, one of 800 workers at the recently shuttered Lear factory here that made S.U.V. seats, has become a $12.50-an-hour veterinarian’s assistant.
And Robert Phelps, after 13 years at Lear, has plunged into a two-year culinary program at Blackhawk Technical College, eager to pursue his long-deferred dream of opening his own restaurant or catering service. Returning to school became financially possible, he said, only because his wife recently landed a job as a secretary for the school district.
“Things happen for a reason,” Mr. Phelps said. “I strongly feel there was some intervention here. The plant shutdown opened up a lot of doors for me.”
Blackhawk Tech’s enrollment has jumped by 1,800 over last year, a 23 percent increase.
“One-third to one-half of the people laid off will come our way,” said Eric Larson, the school’s president. “They’re looking for short-term education that will lead to high-wage jobs. My concern is, ‘Will the jobs be there once we get them retrained?’ ”
John Beckord’s job is to help make sure there are jobs. As the president of Forward Janesville, an economic development agency, he is optimistic, boasting that Janesville is centrally located between Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis and has a hard-working, well-educated work force. Janesville just spent $72 million renovating its two high schools, and there are three state colleges within 10 miles.
“You have an eager local government that is willing to roll out the red carpet for companies, not the red tape,” Mr. Beckord said.
That may not be enough to attract business in a downturn. For that reason, many workers with 20 or more years at G.M. are trying to transfer to other G.M. plants and reach 30 years, which would entitle them to a full pension of $36,000 a year. Problem is, beleaguered G.M. is hiring few transfers.
Workers fear their generous safety net will prove inadequate if the recession is long and deep. What will happen to their families if they cannot find new jobs before their benefits run out?
Some pray that before their 48 weeks of unemployment benefits run out, G.M. will reopen the plant, enabling them to return to their jobs.
Others call that a pipe dream; Mr. Borremans termed it “reality avoidance.”
Mr. Corkhill, the grandson of the World War II veteran, had hoped to transfer to another plant, but has become pessimistic about his chances. To make ends meet, he has eliminated his telephone landline and cut back on premium cable television.
“I’m very angry about the whole economic picture,” he said.
The mood was far different last February when a candidate named Barack Obama campaigned at the plant, trumpeting a $150 billion jobs plan and saying that with some retooling and federal aid, “this plant will be here for another 100 years.”
But soon oil prices soared, the economy swooned and a 40 percent drop in S.U.V. sales sealed the plant’s fate.
Ms. Pope, the former G.M. electrician — proud that she sent her two children to Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin — worries now that “there won’t be opportunities for people like myself to make a middle-class income because the industrial base is so eroded. The jobs that pay $25, $30 an hour where you can afford to help your kids through college and not worry about money, those jobs are becoming more and more scarce. G.M. gave me a wonderful opportunity and my kids a wonderful opportunity, and I don’t see those opportunities around anymore.”
That is why Andy Richardson, president of the U.A.W. local here, and a 24-year G.M. man, hopes to transfer to another plant. He plans to move without his family — his wife has a good job at a credit union, his two daughters are star athletes, and he thinks selling their house would be impossible.
“I want to be able to come back on weekends or every other weekend,” he said. “I’ll miss my family.”
He hopes to transfer no more than five hours away, perhaps to Fort Wayne, Ind., or to Lansing, Mich. He, too, tried to hide his tears.