DETROIT (Reuters) – Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr has a long list of things to fix in the city and among them is one that may sound surprising: there are not enough skilled workers to fill job openings as they become available.
“Every problem in this city revolves around jobs,” said Lindsay Chalmers, vice president of non-profit Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit. “That’s at the heart of the issue for Detroit.”
The decline of manufacturing jobs, above all in the automotive industry, has played a major role in the slide of the Motor City’s population to 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s. Despite recent gains, Michigan has 350,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2000.
Seismic shifts in the local labor market have left many unskilled workers behind.
“In the old days you could graduate on Friday, get hired at the Ford plant on Monday and they’d train you,” said Sheldon Danziger, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “But in Detroit as in other manufacturing cities, employers are demanding that workers come to jobs with more skills than they used to have.”
There are jobs on the horizon for Detroit, with some $8 billion in potential infrastructure investments including a light rail line and a new bridge to Canada, which alone is expected to generate 25,000 jobs. Once these projects begin, they are expected to fuel a surge in service-related jobs.
But Pamela Moore, chief executive of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC), a non-profit focused on retraining the city’s unemployed, said Detroit’s labor force is unprepared for the jobs that may be coming.
“The question is whether we can prepare a lot of people in Detroit for those jobs,” Moore said. “Right now, a lot of them don’t have the necessary skills.”
“SETTING THEM UP FOR FAILURE”
Detroit’s official unemployment rate topped 11 percent in June, well above the national rate of 7.6 percent for that month. Taking into account people who have given up looking for work or may never have worked, unofficial estimates put the jobless rate at well over 20 percent.
Public-sector efforts at job training have shown scant results. After then-governor Jennifer Granholm established a $500 million job training program in 2007, roughly $100 million was spent in Detroit through 2010, but few got jobs because so few positions were available, said Jose Reyes, chief operating officer of the DESC job training agency.
“In many ways, we set them up for failure,” Reyes said.
The not-for-profit sector is trying to step in. Goodwill Industries has formed businesses in Detroit that it uses to train workers. An automotive supply business fills orders for Ford, Chrysler and GM, and a company called Green Works strips down power generators, mostly from local power company DTE Energy, for copper and other metals that it sells to customers.
“We cannot do everything for the folks here, but we can get them on the bottom rung of the economic ladder,” said Green Works president Jay Wilber.
Kim Allen, 47, served two 10-year prison terms including for second-degree murder before landing a temporary, part-time job with Green Works in 2011. Now a permanent employee, she aims to take a welding course Green Works offers.
“This job has given me an opportunity we ex-cons usually don’t get,” she said. “Now it’s time to keep moving up.”
DESC’s Moore said many Detroiters lack “soft skills” such as showing up for work, or even staying off cell phones during job interviews. In some cases, she said, “no one in their families has worked for two generations.”
In the last three years, Detroit has cut the city workforce by more than 2,700 workers, to 9,560.
Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in the Detroit suburb of Warren, said Detroit’s chief labor problem remains a lack of demand.
At Detroit’s high unemployment levels, employers in the Detroit area can “afford to be picky,” Jacobs said.
“Workers here often need training for new skills, but why should an employer bother doing that when there are thousands of workers to choose from?” he said.