School buses used to drop off teenagers by the hundreds each morning at Detroit’s trade schools, followed by a second wave at midday. Students from two dozen high schools across the city arrived to pursue certifications or instruction in 58 career paths ‒ from automotive repair and construction trades to nursing certification and pilot training.
That was 2001. Today, the parking lots and career center buildings in the city are nearly empty due to Detroit Public Schools' historic declining enrollment. The city’s aerospace trade school building was closed last year and the program transferred to another location; most of the 1,200 students at the four remaining trade schools are taking the classes as electives instead of pursuing certification that would mean anything to a potential employer.
In a recently bankrupt city with 18 percent adult unemployment, the lack of youth job training does not bode well for the home-grown population.
This at a time when Detroit has the nation’s highest youth unemployment rate - 57 percent - meaning the city's teens and young adults have less work experience than kids in other cities – a key indicator for future employability.
A 2011 report, “Investing in a Future that Works: Preparing Detroit’s Young Talent for the Dynamic World of Work,” conducted by two local nonprofits ‒ City Connect Detroit and the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce ‒ and researchers from the University of Michigan, found that as baby boomers retire, Detroit’s youth do not have access to a quality education to prepare them to fill future job openings.
But there is a hint of problem-solving afoot.
Detroit Public Schools is attempting to redesign its high school career and technical programs into workforce development centers for youth and adults across the region. The redesign aims to help youth train for skilled work ‒ and save the trade schools from closure (about two-thirds of DPS schools have closed since 2005 due to declining enrollment).
Unions, nonprofits and the chamber of commerce also are developing or piloting training and mentorship programs for youth to help fill the gap left by the city’s depleted high school career training programs, commonly called vocational technical schools, or “vo-tech.”
"Most parents want their kids on a college track and most people think that you’re not on a college track if you’re taking vocational training," said Kevin Smith, chief of staff for DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin, and the lead official on the DPS vocational redesign. "We’ve got to educate the public on the advantages."
Even though the city has a staggering 18 percent unemployment rate, jobs are plentiful in information technology and healthcare. The construction on the new M-1 light rail and the new hockey arena and second bridge to Canada also provide opportunities for those Detroiters with sufficient job skills.
Karen Tyler-Ruiz, director of the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, called the DPS career centers vital to the city’s future.
"In the last 20 years we went from having school-to-work programs and now we’re trying to go back in that direction. I think there’s a role for both high school voc-tech as well as some college prep at the same time," she said. "We have to have multiple pathways for students early on."
Trade schools, college credit
Through a partnership with the Wayne County Community College District, DPS trade schools will offer dual enrollment programs for high school students to earn college credits. And adults from Detroit and the suburbs can sign up for job training classes in the evening, Smith said.
"We’re taking a holistic approach," said Smith. "Industry says our people (in Detroit) need remediation – they told DPS to improve our product. If you are interested in getting a skilled trade certification to go into an industry, you can go to our facility and when you’re there we’re going to remediate you.”
The schools are being modeled after programs at Lansing Community College that prepare both high school students and adults for work and post-secondary training, Smith said. Basic skills testing and career counselors will be available at the DPS workforce development centers as well as tutoring in math and reading. DPS is also recruiting local universities to use the centers as satellite campuses to offer college courses, Smith said.
Ultimately, DPS’ goal is to rebrand the trade schools so that they are seen as regional centers where local businesses and colleges can train as many as 600 youth and adults at each of the four sites.
Unions are working with DPS on the redesign. The unions have a vested reason to help DPS. This summer, the operating engineers union printed 200 applications for jobs. Applicants needed 10th-grade reading and math skills. But only 160 applications were picked up after vigorous community outreach.
"I think part of the reason they’re not applying is they don’t have the confidence" in their skills, said Don O’Connell, executive director of the Operating Engineers Local 342 labor management education committee. "Our industry wants to participate with the mayor and DPS. We’re committed to making this (work)."
The unions also are working with a program called Access for All that is training adults to pass the necessary tests to qualify for apprenticeships in skilled trades. The program, in partnership with SER Metro, a community-based nonprofit in Southwest Detroit, connects trainees with employers and gives them hands-on experiences in different fields through site visits. This fall, 11 of 15 trainees completed the Access for All pilot program and landed apprenticeships.
Stronger high school career centers will decrease the need for programs like this one that re-educate high school graduates who cannot pass the basic math and reading tests to qualify for starter jobs in the skilled trades, O’Connell said.
“The DPS school system has been in trouble for years and declining for years,” he said. “The entire school system is focused more on a four-year college track than really getting people ready for real world and jobs.”
“What I’m finding across the industry is that we are not necessarily getting the number of Detroit residents who are ready and qualified to get into the trades.”
EAA career training collapses
Enrollment in the remaining Detroit career centers took a real hit with the creation of the state reform school district, the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, which took over six low-performing DPS high schools in 2012.
Those schools stopped allowing students to go to DPS career training. In 2013, the EAA created a training and dual-enrollment program of its own hoping to enroll 1,000 students, but it collapsed because few students enrolled.
Employment experts say that redesigned career centers could play an important role in the city’s future by preparing more Detroit youth for in-demand jobs.
"The bottom line is, without that type of hands-on opportunity, kids just aren’t getting the skills employers want," said Lisa Katz, director of the Workforce Intelligence Network. "I don’t care if you are college-bound or not, even if you have a bachelor’s degree, we’re finding that employers don’t want you if you don’t have experience. Unless you can show you can actually do something, that you have experience, that you have a history they can trust, you’re not as employable."
However, the DPS plan is still in the development stages and will require outside investments from businesses and colleges, said Smith, of DPS.
“We’re not sure yet how much it will cost, but we can’t afford to be going in the direction we are going if we want to turnaround the city,” he said.
So far, the DPS workforce development centers are off to a slow start. About 1,200 DPS high school students have signed up for courses, most of them taking a class or two as electives as opposed to signing up to pursue job training or a certification. The Randolph Technical High School on Detroit’s west side was transformed this year to offer both trades courses and general high school courses, but it has only about 30 ninth graders so far.
The Workforce Intelligence Network has partnered with the Detroit Regional Chamber to develop a career readiness program for high school students that would include field trips to work sites and mentoring, helping fill gaps left by the depleted high school career centers.
“If youth continue to be disconnected from the workplace, they’ll have to draw from different government resources or illegal sources of income,” Katz said. “They’re going to find a way to live and it’s going to cost society. Kids who have work experience are going to be better off.”
To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.