Bryce Aston thought at first he was taking a risk when he bailed from his job at a retail store and jumped into a new job welding metal tanks.
Aston, 21, a Beloit native and now a Janesville resident, had zero experience with a welding gun.
He’d just come out of retail as a checkout lane cashier at a big-box retailer in Janesville. Store management had whittled his and other employees’ hours from full-time to just 19 hours a week, Aston said.
He quit. Then, he started looking for a job outside of retail.
He is among a growing number of people leaving retail jobs—some voluntarily and some not—to reinvent themselves in other segments of the economy.
Nationally, the retail sector has been plagued by hourly cuts plus layoffs. Locally, multiple chain store closings in the last two years have cost hundreds of area workers their jobs, according to state records. Since 2018, state Department of Workforce Development layoff notices show that announced store closings have meant 282 retail employees have been laid off or will be laid off in Janesville, Beloit and Delavan alone.
Many of those layoffs came in 2018 as big-box and department stores such as Boston Store and Toys R Us announced they were going out of business and liquidating.
More job losses followed in the wake of the closures of Janesville stores such as Sears, Staples, Dress Barn and Yankee Candle, and the planned closures of local Shopko and Payless stores. Some of those stores weren’t required to submit layoff notices to the state.
That could peg the number of local retail workers laid off since 2018 at 300—if not 400 or more.
Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board Chief Executive Rhonda Suda said any estimate of retail job losses locally would be a guess.
While it can be difficult to count unemployed retail workers, Suda said she’s been told those looking for jobs after leaving retail run the gamut from sales associates to top store management.
Job losses and job instability in retail are on federal and state workforce officials’ radars.
Suda said federal displaced worker funding now is earmarked for unemployed retail workers.
Her agency in Janesville, which is part of the state Department of Workforce Development, is using that funding to launch a range of retraining programs, offering former retail workers between $15,000 and $20,000 in retraining to help funnel them into new career paths.
Some retail workers, depending on their skills and experience, might need less training than others.
Suda estimated her agency’s program is geared to reach 25 to 50 employees—about 10 to 15 percent of those in the region who’ve lost jobs in retail the last year or so.
Some of those workers will end up in another retail job, but others, Suda said, can make a smooth transition into other sectors because they’ve shown themselves to be versatile.
Many have become accustomed to evening and weekend hours, and they typically have developed so-called “soft skills” from constant one-on-one contact with customers.
The upshot, Suda said, is that even if some segments of retail are scuffling, other local job sectors are hiring, and it remains a job seeker’s market.
Some key hiring areas where training might be applied include administrative work in the medical field, floor and clerical work in warehousing and distribution, and skilled or semi-skilled jobs in information technology, manufacturing and construction.
In those fields, local companies have been hiring heavily or would hire if they could find properly skilled workers.
Suda said the biggest hurdle laid-off workers face might be their own confidence.
“There are people that have been department managers at stores, you know, so they’d have the lady’s section or the men’s section for 15 or 20 years. They’re leaving something that they became experts at, customer service, sales,” Suda said.
“Maybe they’re saying, ‘If I had any value to them, they wouldn’t be closing.’ You’re making these correlations that aren’t exactly logical, but it’s a natural emotion.”
Bryce Aston’s former retail employer, he said, is one of the biggest box store chains in the country.
Aston’s transformation from wearing a retail store nametag to a welding helmet, heavy leather gloves and arm gauntlets came in part through some guerilla marketing by United Alloy. He learned more later about his prospects for transforming himself in the job market.
Aston was out and about when saw a recruiting flyer posted for United Alloy—a Janesville fabricator that produces metal tanks, boxes and other equipment. He landed an interview and learned the company would, A), pay him while he trained to do the type of welding the company requires and, B), reimburse his costs at a special welding program Blackhawk Technical College runs in partnership with United Alloy.
Luke Jaynes, United Alloy’s vice president of sales, and Jenna Newcomb, the company’s operations vice president, said the company has hired employees who came out of retail.
The labor market is tight enough that the company and others, they said, are watching the local labor shed with an eye partly trained to layoffs and another eye trained to workers who might be looking for other job opportunities.
United Alloy has hired some who’ve been scuttled from jobs at ailing local retailers, and it’s also participated in recent job fairs held by a northern Illinois automaker as it plans job cuts.
On Saturday, the company is hosting an open house recruitment to show prospective employees a dramatic expansion of its manufacturing footprint at 4100 Kennedy Road that’s brought new coating and painting lines and a boost to more than 100 employees.
“With employees like Bryce, we’re trying to afford an opportunity to be able to take that leap without not having a job. One of the big things you struggle with when we approach people in retail is ‘I need my current job to pay my bills.’ So they don’t want to take that step to go get their skilled trade or education,” Jaynes said.
“So, that’s where we started hiring people that want to be welders that have a good attitude and that want to improve and get a career. We hire them with no weld experience, and their first day they’re paid to report to Blackhawk Tech,” he said.
Aston now works on a line that combines by-hand and robotic welding of large metal boxes built to house mechanical and electrical equipment.
“It was kind of a whirlwind, going from quitting my job and be like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll become a welder,’”Aston said. “It was one of those things that could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t. I wasn’t just thrown to the wolves. I had an instructor there to help and all the other people in the same program. It was really geared towards (work I’d do) here.” Aston said.
“It was like, ‘All right, let’s learn how to weld.’”
The fields around Monroe still haven’t been planted. The weather has been too cold and too wet.
But that’s the only pause in agribusiness.
Agronomists, dairy farmers, herdsmen, ag equipment operators, breeders, sales people, mechanics, food scientists, ag lenders, commodity specialists, dairy farmers and other producers all are working.
It’s that comprehensive view of agriculture that led Blackhawk Technical College to expand its agribusiness program from continuing education for farmers to a one-year certificate program and then to a two-year associate degree.
The program has been successful enough that the college’s board approved $650,000 to build a 3,200-square-foot lab for the program. The building will give students the space for hands-on training, regardless of weather conditions, according to a news release from the college.
On a recent rainy morning while his students studied for final exams, ag teacher Dusty Williams showed where the new ag lab was emerging from the ground. Next to it in the parking lot stood a six-row planter customized by students.
Blackhawk Technical College has offered agricultural courses from its earliest days, but they were more like continuing education for farmers, Williams said.
That program still exists as “farm business and production management” and is designed for farm operators.
“So part of the problem was that the courses weren’t transferable, and it wasn’t at the associate degree level,” Williams said. “So we weren’t really offering anything for people who wanted to work in the industry.”
The school created a one-year certificate program for agribusiness specialist. The two-semester program includes a variety of three-credit courses, such as Introduction to Plant Science, Introduction to Animal Science and Math with Business Applications.
Students also leave with a commercial driver’s license, a commercial applicator’s license and a technical certificate. The cost for the 35 credits is $5,395, and students can apply for federal financial aid.
That one-year certificate course now serves as a base for a two-year associate degree in agribusiness/science and technology. The second year of courses takes a more in-depth look at livestock management and nutrition, marketing, microeconomics and precision agriculture techniques.
Students leave with an associate degree with transferable credits and the certificates they earned their first year. The cost for two years of school and 64 credits is $9,589.
But isn’t farming, as we know it, going away?
Yes and no, Williams said.
Small and midsize dairy farms are disappearing at a disheartening rate, while larger operations are thriving. Midsize crop farms are also disappearing, but large operations and niche operations of less than 50 acres are increasing, Williams said.
And agribusiness has always needed specialists of all kinds.
“This is an industry that has been used to hiring retired farmers and farm kids,” Williams said. “But now there are so few retired farmers and farm kids that the industry is shifting, and they’re having to hire people that didn’t grow up on a farm.”
At the groundbreaking for the new lab, Art Carter, Green County Board chairman, said agriculture was important to the region.
“We need to keep training new people to meet our demands. The technology of the industry changes constantly, and if we don’t develop new workers, agriculture for the county will suffer,” Carter said.
The challenge isn’t finding jobs for graduating students—that’s easy enough.
Rather, Williams finds himself fighting against the perception that tech colleges are second-best.
He had a parent tell him Blackhawk Tech couldn’t be as good because it was less expensive. The technical college system is supported by property tax dollars, and that’s one of the reasons its tuition is less expensive, he told her.
One of Blackhawk’s primary competitors is the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. The 16-week course runs from November through March to accommodate farm schedules. Students earn a certificate in the “foundations of farm management.”
The 12-credit course costs $3,673. Housing is another $3,500, and the cost of food ranges between $500 and $1,300, depending on how often the student goes home.
Short-course students can earn additional certificates during a second year in the program. But it’s not always easy to transfer those credits to another college program because many of the classes are single-credit courses. Most college courses are three credits.
Another challenge is that the short course is not eligible for federal financial aid, although it does offer scholarships and students can get bank loans.
Williams acknowledged that part of the appeal of the short course is the “college experience”—going to football games, parties and the fun of being away from home.
Colleen Toberman was Parkview High School’s valedictorian in 2018, so when it came to picking a college, she had plenty of choices.
“I did tour Platteville, and I thought I might go there,” Toberman said. “But when I went to Blackhawk, it felt like the right fit.”
She got some flak for her decision. People told her she could go to UW-Madison if she wanted, so why BTC?
Blackhawk’s small class sizes, hands-on activities, the ability to live at home and work, and, of course, the lower cost all played a part in her decision.
“I didn’t know if I would be challenged there, but I was, and they kept me busy all the time,” Toberman said.
She joined the Professional Agricultural Student Organization, which allowed her to network with other agribusiness professionals and students. This summer, after she graduates with her associate degree, Toberman will work in her second paid internship at Landmark Services Cooperative in Evansville.
Next year, she plans to pursue a business degree using Blackhawk Tech’s credit transfer agreement with UW-Whitewater. In two years, when her friends at four-year colleges are getting their first internships, Toberman hopes to be established in her chosen field.
Becky Lynn Lami
George P. McGill
Lloyd I. Oberman
Mary M. Vaage
Republicans determined to deliver Wisconsin for President Donald Trump next year will be doing it with a party working to rebuild after the departure of its two biggest stars and a rough midterm election that sent it reeling.
The Wisconsin GOP heads into its state convention that starts Friday with a plan that depends on rebuilding from the ground up after former House Speaker Paul Ryan retired and Gov. Scott Walker was voted out of office.
“After the November 2018 elections it was a combination of shock and a certain level of depression,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, the only Republican left in statewide office. Johnson led a post-mortem study of the midterm losses that determined more work needed to be done at the local level to recruit and train both volunteers and candidates.
Johnson was to discuss the report at the convention, which has taken the theme “A New Day. A New Party” and will emphasize training and workshops over the usual political speeches. Johnson said that work will create a “grassroots juggernaut” to reelect Trump.
Wisconsin is among a handful of battleground states that could determine the 2020 election.
Trump was the first Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984 to carry Wisconsin, but he did so by less than 1 percentage point. Reagan was also the last Republican to win the state twice in a row. Barack Obama won big both times he ran for president, but previous Democratic candidates won by less than half a point in 2000 and 2004.
“We can win in this state; we’ve done it,” said Republican Party activist Brian Westrate, an insurance agent from Fall Creek in western Wisconsin. “One bad election cycle doesn’t mean our conservative philosophy and ideology is dead. We just, perhaps, got too far away from all being in the same boat rowing in the same direction.”
Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s Wisconsin campaign in 2004, said he thinks Republicans are entering 2020 ready for an “incredibly tight, tough race” with uncertainty about how it will play out.
“The sense is nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen next year,” Graul said.
To win in 2020, more work needs to be done to organize at the local level, said state party executive director Mark Jefferson. That covers things as rudimentary as making sure yard signs are widely available and distributed and as advanced as using data analytics to target likely voters and get people on the ground to knock on their doors, Jefferson said.
“Was enough of that stuff done last time around? Maybe, maybe not,” Jefferson said.
While Republicans look inward at how to improve, they will have to move forward without two longtime, prominent leaders. For the first time in 20 years, when Republicans gather for their convention neither Walker nor Ryan will be in elected office.
The loss of the governor’s office is particularly stinging for Republicans, as Walker was the most prolific fundraiser in the history of Wisconsin politics, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for the GOP.
Jefferson said one thing the state party must address is how to spend its money more effectively, even as everyone agrees the Trump campaign intends to make Wisconsin a priority and provide the money necessary to compete.
Democrats, in a nod to Wisconsin’s importance in the presidential race, will hold their national convention in Milwaukee in 2020. Their state convention this year is June 1.
Devin Remiker, the Democrats’ executive director of political affairs, said Republicans have “talked a big game” about engaging grassroots voters before but failed to follow through.
While Republicans were dejected after Walker’s narrow defeat in 2018, they have been reenergized by the win last month by conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn.
“As down as people were after November statewide, the Hagedorn win has given us a great amount of hope,” said Walker, who will be attending a Sunday prayer breakfast at the convention but not the bulk of the gathering. “To win in 2020, we’re going to need that.”