Detroit's comeback can't work if most are left behind

The collective chant is that “Detroit is coming back.” As though someone switched on a light, there is a renewed interest in the city, and that’s a good thing. For some. While new businesses and capital investments make the headlines, right under the latest on Detroit’s bankruptcy, is the mention of how many new jobs these new ventures will bring. For some.

Bringing jobs is one thing; preparation by the masses to qualify for them is an entirely different conversation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Detroit’s unemployment as of December of 2013 was 8.0 percent. While down from 10.2 percent for the same period the previous year, it is still higher than the national average of 6.5 percent. Looking around the city, it still seems even higher. For some.

The new businesses coming are bringing jobs to the city, but not necessarily new ones. When the jobs are new and open, they are for those who are educated, experienced and qualified, leaving many Detroiters out of that equation.

According to the Detroit Regional Chamber, more than $10 billion in investments are planned, active or completed in commercially key and stable areas in the city. It represents the “trickle-down urbanism” that author and native Detroiter Thomas Sugrue says will not salvage or save Detroit, as the jobs created as a result are for a specific audience and not the kind that will help the city or many of its residents emerge from generational poverty.

While I applaud those who publicly advocate for job allocation for Detroiters, it is an empty cry that falls upon unqualified ears. According to the most recent estimates by the National Institute for Literacy, approximately 47 percent of Detroit adults were functionally illiterate. And, it was also found that half of that estimated illiterate population had a high school diploma and that one in three workers in Michigan lack the necessary skills to pursue higher education.

So, what does this mean? This means that while some improvements may — and I use that term generously — have taken place within our public schools systems, we are still dealing with systemic unpreparedness. Those who are unable and maybe incapable of taken advantage of retraining or learning new skills are left out of the equation of Detroit’s revitalization unless there is an aggressive and multi-pronged approach that includes redefining public education, an elevation in value for education especially by those who don’t have it, and the creation of low-skilled but fair-waged jobs for those who can and want to work.

Without such a creative, comprehensive and even lofty solution, there will remain a population in Detroit that is unable to participate or contribute to the city’s growth and sustainability. Instead, they become or remain by oversight or design, the forgotten ones.

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Sat, 03/01/2014 - 1:31pm
Reading this article and several written on recenttalk by Thomas Sugrue, I have to ask: who is saying ANY one thing will bring back Detroit? No one, as far as I have heard. For Detroit to make progress progress it will have to be on many fronts: safety, education, functioning city govt/svcs, neighborhood development, and taxes just to name a few. The good thing is that action is (or will) be taken on all of these. It took a heck of a long time to get into the situation it's in now and will take many years (decades) to get back out. With the Future City plan (which Duggan's team says is a blue print) assembling land for large-sacle, low skill manufacturing COULD be an approach to put people to work. Get the above issues under control, especially taxes, saftey and red-tape, and with the attention Detroit has of the nation/world, good things could happen.... no one is saying "hipsters" (love the term, btw) will save anything by themselves.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 1:34am
Ms. Dumas’s view of how we get to where we want to go seems to be like starting on a trip by pulling out of the driveway and then deciding which way to turn, at the first intersection seeing which street sign sounds best and turning that way, at each succeeding intersection repeating that process. Since she never seems to have a specific destination in mind, neither she or anyone else will ever know if the trip was a success. For any organization that is having difficulties they first need to decide where they want get to and then start working on what are the possible effective ways to get there. Using Detroit as an example the people of Detroit need to first decide what they want the City to provide (safety, structure, stability?), determine what the barriers are to getting there, then start working on what actions need to be taken to overcome or work around those barriers. Ms. Dumas is concerned that new jobs coming to Detroit will not be filled by current residence. She needs to decide what types of jobs she wants for Detroit and then determine why Detroiters won’t fill them. If she wants high paying jobs then I would expect they will require knowledgeable and skilled people. If Detroit doesn’t have that then either the jobs will be filled from elsewhere or they will go elsewhere. Ms. Dumas is looking for magic and has little interest in reality. She seems to want the high paying jobs for Detroiters without the Detroiters having to be competitive in getting those jobs. I would offer that in the current situation it is about drawing the jobs into Detroit and then start working on finding residents that are willing to invest in developing the necessary knowledge and skills for those jobs. The alternative would be for Detroit to become and appealing place for workers and their families to live so those with the necessary knowledge and skills for new high paying jobs in Detroit want to move closer to work and begin to support a changing Detroit. Ah, I doubt that will fulfill Ms. Dumas’s desired magic that pays the under skilled high wages for living in Detroit. It comes back to whether there is a vision of what Detroit can/should be or one that hopes it will be better without knowing what better is. Ms. Dumas seems to want a new education system that will bring all current residents to levels of competency that is competitive with all other areas striving to bring jobs to their cities. That sounds like looking for magic and avoiding the reality of effort. I believe Ms. Dumas could provide a beneficial service to the recovery of Detroit if she would post an article that describes her vision of Detroit and encouraging others to help refine it so there would be a start on a map for Detroit’s future. No trip is successful unless you know where you want to go before you start.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 6:16am
The world has changed and you can not put 47% illiteracy together with low skilled but high paying jobs. Even flipping burgers requires some literacy among the workers. You have to raise the average educational standards of the population for Detroit to succeed, and to do that in the shorter term requires that you either bring in higher educated people, or you disperse to other areas those without the necessary education. Since the later is not possible, then you are looking at a very long term before Detroit is able to be among the more successful cities. I wonder how long one can wait?
William C. Plumpe
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 6:53am
I agree with Ms. Dumas 100%. The biggest problem for Detroiters is not lack of jobs or lack of capita or lack of desire or determinationl but a serious and long standing problem having to do with the educational preparedness of Detroit high school graduates and adults. The reading illiteracy and financial illiteracy rates in the City of Detroit for residents 16 years and older matches that of a third world country. What is needed desperately is a focused and determined program not to provide jobs but to provide the basic skills that citizens need to get jobs. Give people the skills they need---the basic reading and math skills so necessary to function in today's world and the jobs will happen. But no matter how many jobs you create with how much money you may have if your employees can't read your program is doomed from the start. Enough said.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 7:39am
This is an excellent essay. Detroit's revival depends upon a great increase in employment for Detroit residents. Unemployment is an important concern but it is also important to stress that very many adults in Detroit are neither working nor seeking a job. The Census Bureau's 2012 survey found that 46% of men living in Detroit aged 25 to 64 were employed, 17% were looking for work but 37% were not in the labor force. Among women, 48 % were employed, 14% were looking for work while 38% were out of the labor force. Creating jobs and improving skill levels are very important. The State has taken over the Detroit Public Schools and Governor Snyder established the new Education Excellence Administration to fundamentally change the city's public schools. We hope those programs will be very successful in preparing Detroit youth for the job market.
Frank Kalinski
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 9:09am
Bravo Ms. Dumas! We seem to be in this "Build it and they will come trap" Like the money and effort put into the M-1 rail project? Imagine if those resources went into putting regular express buses(that ran both directions, not just inbound in the am and outbound in the pm) on the main arterial roads like Gratiot out to Mt Clemens or Michigan Avenue to the Airport. Reading is the same way: We dump vast-untold millions into such places as U o M that already possess multi-BILLION dollar endowments yet, judging from policy decisions and comments to this story, folks can't read at all or worse yet folks with college educations can't read for MEANING; can't read for UNDERSTANDING, (but they can come up with lame analogies or metaphors about automobiles) Reading, my friends, "IS" problem solving.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 11:49am
So true this article. What's missing is where do 'baby boomers' fit in this rebuilding of Detroit. Who will hire us? We're still healthy, highly skilled, with maybe 10 good years remaining in our work life. Who better for start up business's then someone dependable, dedicated, loyal and eager to work.
Charles Richards
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 7:15pm
Ms. Demas is to be commended for saying, "Bringing jobs is one thing; preparation by the masses to qualify for them is an entirely different conversation." It shows a clear-eyed acceptance of reality. Similarly, she says, "When the jobs are new and open, they are for those who are educated, experienced and qualified, leaving many Detroiters out of that equation." Unfortunately, she shows less attachment to reality when she calls for " the creation of low-skilled but fair-waged jobs for those who can and want to work." There is no such thing as "low-skilled but fair-waged jobs." They are a thing of the past. But she is absolutely correct when she says that without such a " lofty solution, there will remain a population in Detroit that is unable to participate or contribute to the city’s growth and sustainability. Instead, they become or remain by oversight or design, the forgotten ones." But they are not the "forgotten ones" by either "oversight or design." What we have is a tragedy of monumental proportions. She is absolutely correct to stress the overwhelming urgency of sharply improving Detroit's schools.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 7:52pm
Ms. Dumas, Mr. Plumple, Mr. Farley, Mr. Kalinski seem to have a 'group think'. I would be surprised if they can't finish each others thoughts and even sentences. They see education as the issue, they see jobs the issue. They don't seem to see the individual as having contributed to this problem. It is individual expectations that is the issue. What do the kids expect of themselves? Do they expect 'good jobs', do the expect to have academic success, do they expect to work to achieve their goals? Where/who do they get their expectations from? What are the expectations they need to have to succeed? Are their expecations sufficient for their success? Detroit had good schools, Detroit has had kids succeed academically and professionally even in the Detroit school system. Why isn't this group thinking about learning from those successes rather belaboring their own frustrations. Rather then have readers expect cheese with the article, why not offer food for thought that will challenge people? History suggests individuals build Detroit by deciding what they wanted and doing what it took in trying to achieve it. Why isn't the conversation asking what the people, individually, can do to change the City? Why aren't we hearing the questions about, what neighborhoods are succeeding and why? which students and teachers are succeeding and why? which communities are succeeding and why? This learned 'group' should be able to stimulate a conversation about changing not only Detroit but other cities with problems. Instead we get data that tells us nothing new. We get concerns that we have been hearing for quite awhile from many different sources. This 'group', much of the City, most in Lansing have a defeatist mindset when it comes to Detroit. How can we expect success when all we hear about is failure and no examples of success. If the model is failure then failure is what we will get. It is seldom the 'lofty solution' that changes things, the founding and growth of Detroit into its heyday wasn't due to a lofty plans/solutions, it was people working to succeed, to achieve their expectations each day in their individual way. I have a new phrase describing the quest for magic, 'lofty solution'. I will add it to 'big idea', 'blue ribbon committee', government programs, rules/regulations.
John S.
Sun, 03/02/2014 - 11:36pm
I'm not sure about the author's thesis. Most jobs being created today are low wage jobs (e.g., servers, etc.) where many workers are part-time and often must rely on food stamps, emergency rooms, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Credit to get by. Converting more part-time jobs to full-time jobs would help, but employers wont' do so until they are relieved of the burden of health care costs because the country has moved to a single payer health care system. An increase in the minimum wage also would help. For residents of Detroit, having better transportation to jobs outside the city would help. Then, most implausibly, there's need for unions that can organize low wage workers. Improving K-12 education will impact only younger generations.
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 10:35am
It's funny how journalism is cyclical. This is now the issue being covered by your usual suspects- DetNews, NYT, Atlantic Cities. This piece is more specific than some of those, but it just shows the conversation about Detroit is just one of trends.
Tue, 12/09/2014 - 12:17pm
Nobody wants to hit the problem head on. How can any urban community survive and thrive when half the population is functionally illiterate? This is a population that anywhere at any time would not be able to survive unless others take care of it. Now is time to classify Detroit as being four Detroits: downtown-midtown, outer neighborhoods, new-comers-starter uppers, and the suburban population that works in the city. Perhaps what might work is frankly acknowledging that there is not one Detroit and that a part of the city will never be fully socialized. A new Detroit has to funciton to accomodate all four segments of residents.The queston is how to do it if it is possible? It will take decades to accomplish. If possible.How can a city attract viable residents who would want to co-exist with the level of apparent social pathology? This needs serious reality testing for sure.