In Michigan, A Yellow Light For Green Jobs
Some Question Focus of Ailing State's Governor
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
LANSING, Mich. -- If the future of American manufacturing lies in green industries, the Michigan governor's pursuit of jobs offers a cautionary tale.
Four years ago, Jennifer M. Granholm set out to remake her state, which took an exceptional walloping with the decline of the auto industry, as a pioneer in creating environmentally friendly jobs. Today, however, jobs are still disappearing much faster than she can create them, raising questions about how long it will take Michigan and other hard-hit states to find new industries to employ their workers.
Since taking office in 2003, Granholm has created 163,300 positions, her office says. She expects that a recent infusion of more than $1 billion from the Obama administration aimed at nurturing car battery and electric-vehicle projects will generate 40,000 more positions by 2020.
In the past decade, however, as the auto industry has grown smaller, Michigan has lost 870,000 jobs -- about 632,000 of them during Granholm's tenure. The number is expected to reach 1 million by late next year, the end of her term.
In her effort to attract employers, the governor has taken up the latest arms in the economic arsenal -- tax credits, loans, Super Bowl tickets and a willingness to travel as far as Japan for a weekend to try to persuade an auto parts company to bring more jobs to Michigan. She has won solar and wind energy, electric car batteries, and movie production jobs. About 10,800 of the new positions came from overseas companies, according to her office, the fruits of visits to seven countries.
"We have great bones as a state," she says. "We know how to build stuff. We will build on that strength and diversify this economy. We will lead the nation in creating jobs in renewable energy. We're not going to be viewed as Luddites."
In a state hit so hard by the recession, though, securing every new job has required enormous effort: mobilizing the state bureaucracy, negotiating tax deals with a politically divided legislature, dispelling impressions that Michigan is a pro-union state and inhospitable to business.
Supporters and detractors alike call the 5-foot-7-inch blonde "Jenny the cheerleader" because of her relentless optimism. She prefers zealot. Those qualities were severely tested three years ago when appliance maker Electrolux closed its century-old refrigerator plant in Greenville, 160 miles northwest of Detroit, and moved to Mexico, taking 3,000 jobs from the town of 8,000.
As Granholm told the story in her office, overlooking the state Capitol, tears welled up in her eyes. She had spent months calling, e-mailing and meeting with city and state officials trying to sway the company to take a package worth about $70 million in tax breaks to stay in Michigan. Electrolux left anyway.
Granholm visited with workers at an orchard near the plant within days of the last refrigerators coming off the assembly line, and the employees ate a "last supper" of boxed lunches while a band played. Her staff had scheduled 45 minutes. She stayed three hours, listening to workers' stories.
"I went to say, 'I'm sorry,' " Granholm said. "We couldn't save it. I can't even say it now. I stayed until the last guy left."
A 48-year-old man with tattoos and a ponytail, who had worked at the plant since high school, described how his grandfather and father had worked there, too.