A trench stretches down the middle of downtown Detroit.
In a city where too many people are poor and need jobs ‒ with nearly 1-in-five adults out of work ‒ taxpayers might expect many Detroiters to be hired on the crews turning the fresh ditch into a new light rail system along iconic Woodward Avenue.
If only it were so simple.
In a cruel turn, too many Detroiters lack the basic skills needed to get the jobs that are finally becoming available as the city rebuilds from bankruptcy, whether in construction, or in growing fields like healthcare and information technology. Making the situation worse, young people in the city are receiving too little training or work experience ‒ Detroit has the nation’s highest youth unemployment rate, and career training centers in the city’s struggling high schools have been cut, not bolstered, in recent years.
Even for many Detroiters receiving training, employment is no sure thing.
Training programs are full of people who have graduated from high schools with less than ninth-grade skills and can’t pass a proficiency test to get a job as a machinist or construction apprentice.
Community college classes are full of Detroiters who want in on the plentiful jobs in healthcare, but have to take remedial classes before they can qualify for certification.
And 12,000 Detroiters who looked for work last year with help from the state’s job development centers were found to have only middle-school-level reading and math skills, while most living-wage occupations require at least high-school-level skills.
The dearth of skilled labor comes as the new light-rail train is under construction, a new $450 million hockey arena project is recruiting Detroiters to apply for an expected 8,300 jobs, and the so-called District Detroit, a 50-block area from Midtown to downtown, is actively recruiting Detroiters for work. In Lansing, meanwhile, Gov. Snyder is recruiting immigrants to come to Michigan to work, start a business and employ workers from the city.
Employment experts warn that if young Detroiters are to join in the city’s hoped-for resurgence beyond bankruptcy, it is critical for schools, the business sector and policy makers to join forces to create more basic skills training programs.
"People need to realize that right now the city is in a huge transition. Things are changing quickly, the economy is improving, businesses are coming to Detroit," said Pamela Moore, president and CEO of the Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. The DESC runs the federally-funded Michigan Works! Offices in Detroit and is recruiting and training workers to qualify for jobs building the arena.
"We’ve got to stay focused on the people who’ve been here and had a tough time getting on their feet,” Moore said. “How do we provide them resources? If we don’t get on this training, things are moving pretty fast and Detroiters are going to be left behind."
How bad? Who knows
When employers and trainers talk about basic skills, they typically mean ninth-grade level reading, writing, and arithmetic abilities that entry level employment requires. How many Detroiters have little or no basic skills? It’s hard to say.
In Detroit, 77 percent of adultshave a high school diploma, and only 19 percent have an associate’s degree or higher. Even among those who graduated from high school, many have been shown to have math and reading skills more in line with a middle-school student.
Overall literacy rates are unreliable. Over the years, most recently in 2011, studies have gained national publicity by declaring that 47 percent of adult Detroiters are functionally illiterate. It turns out, those numbers go back to a study from 1993, when the city had 300,000 more people. Which doesn’t mean the statistic is wrong; only that the data is, well, dated, making it difficult for the city to gauge the current scope of the problem.
Literacy is a sensitive issue for the city’s job skills programs, which are often reluctant to share their own studies. All they will say is that Detroit’s average basic skills level is not good.
They’ve known it for years. But nobody has been able to quantify the basic skills or literacy levels in Detroit. No new studies have been undertaken in the past 20 years.
Workforce development agencies in Detroit have aligned themselves with the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund ‒ to help Detroiters get the training they need to eradicate the 18% unemployment rate.
And the passionate among them say the collaboration, late in coming, needs more resources and a measurable goal - in a hurry. A coordinated effort would help more young Detroiters like Damone Huff.
Last spring, Damone Huff, 22, took the TABE test, which gauges basic skills, at a job training center run by the Detroit nonprofit, Focus:HOPE. The results showed he was not ready to even qualify to train for a job as a machinist, a job where he could earn $12 to $16 an hour, easily. He had graduated from high school in 2010, but his math score rated him on an eighth-grade level.
The job required that he know basic principles of fractions, decimals and some geometry, Cartesian coordinates and percentages. As far as most entry-level jobs that require testing for these skills were concerned, he was unhirable.
So Huff signed up for a basic skills course at Focus:HOPE and studied math, reading, financial literacy, computer literacy and workforce readiness from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for eight weeks. When it was over, he passed the test. Now he’s in the machinist training program at Focus:HOPE.
"I got a lot out of it. I definitely know how to do math backward and forward," he said. "A lot of people don’t stick with the training. I’m sticking with it. If you learn more, you earn more."
Huff’s story of graduating from high school with less-than-high-school skills is not uncommon.
In a sobering indictment of the public schools, a high school diploma does not guarantee that a person has even ninth-grade reading and writing skills, said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, director of the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, the collaboration of 10 national and local, public and private funders that have committed $3.5 million for workforce development.
The average ACT score for students in Detroit Public Schools is a 16 out of 36, compared with a state average of 20. Only 3.5 percent of DPS students who took the 2014 ACT were considered career or college ready in all the ACT subjects tested (English, reading, writing, math and science) compared with 20 percent of students statewide. That's 92 college-ready children out of all the students who took the ACT in DPS. That low rate also suggests that many Detroiters looking for jobs lack the skills for entry level work, according to the DRWF.
Tyler-Luiz is encouraged by the DRWF’s creation of the Detroit Jobs Alliance, an umbrella of about 76 different municipal, private and nonprofit organizations working together to bring more work to the city. But she said too many of the city’s literacy programs still aren’t providing the kind of fast-track, practical knowledge that will get people employed.
“They do traditional classroom, basic literacy but that doesn’t tie to the workforce, doesn’t tie to a job,” she said. “ They’re not advancing anything an employer can look at and say a person is ready to move into work.”
"We know the basic skills gap is there, what is more troubling and still has no full solution is that there is not a dedicated set of resources to address it," Tyler-Ruiz said.
If schools and workforce development agencies were working toward the same goal ‒ improving the job skills of Detroiters ‒ public schools would be focusing students and adults alike on the same training and tests that employers use to assess potential workers, she said. Most employers test work skills through the TABE (Tests of Adult Basic Education) test and the ACT’s WorkKeys job skills assessment.
Intensive training can get results
High-level testing and training specifically targeted to jobs can help an adults improve their math and reading skills by several grade levels over several weeks. Workforce development nonprofits such as SER Metro-Detroit in southwest Detroit and Focus:Hope have done it for decades.
However, few Detroiters get such training. A 2011 report by DRWF, "Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis," concluded that only about 20,000 Detroiters each year receive any basic skills training in reading and math to help pass proficiency tests in fields such as health care, construction, and manufacturing.
The report also found that only 27 percent of surveyed workforce development programs in the city serve job seekers with the lowest skills. And the vast majority of those programs are not offered in the intensive formats that are shown to yield quicker results.
It’s time for schools and employers to pool resources for more "fast track" training, said Glenda Magarrell, a project director at SER Metro, which has organized workforce training for the past 43 years.
"We deal with people with less than high school skills because they were undereducated and have been out of school a long time," she said. Using tutoring that tied to the basic skills test, a literate person can gain employable skills within two months, she said.
SER Metro is a partner in Access for All, a program that prepares people looking for jobs to become apprentices in construction skilled trades such as carpentry, masonry and operating engineers. To become an apprentice, they have to pass a basic skills test.
"There are collaborations to provide training. There are supports to get people into longer-term employment," Magarrell said. "Basic skills, literacy programs, is the first place new resources should go," she said.
Setting big goals, working as one
Despite the dozens of nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations devoted to providing job skills to Detroiters, the collaborators have yet to identify an ambitious city or regional goal for increasing basic skills and decreasing unemployment.
Does the city need to increase the number of workers who can pass basic skills tests by 10 percent this year? By 50 percent by 2020?
Big targets are part of the calculus in west Michigan, where business leaders are working together to attract businesses, retain talent and boost the economy. The presidents and CEOs of the largest firms in the region partnered with area universities to form Talent 2025 http://talent2025.org/.
The organization seeks to make the region around Grand Rapids a top 20 economic U.S. region partly by increasing the number of western Michigan residents ages 25 to 64 who have post-high school credentials or degrees from 31 percent in 2007 to 40 percent by 2025.
That’s a biggie - a measurable goal.
West Michigan and Detroit may be facing different challenges– unemployed Detroiters need more basic skills, while western Michigan CEOs are focused on increasing post-secondary degree and credential attainment. But western Michigan’s collaboration towards a common goal is not lost on Detroit job development stakeholders.
"We don’t have a Talent 2025 goal here yet," Tyler-Ruiz said, referring to Detroit. "We need one clear strategy that we’re all working on."
Greg Handel, senior director of workforce development for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said industries cannot say with any certainty how many jobs or even which types of jobs will be most in demand in Detroit a decade from now.
However, if basic skills attainment is a problem now, it’s an indicator of bigger problems moving forward. The percentage of residents who have a high school or college education are becoming the best indicators of whether residents are ready for the workforce, Handel said.
According to CEOs for Cities, a national nonprofit for urban leaders, if Detroit increased its college attainment rate by one percentage point, the region would capture $3.4 billion in additional income.
High school level skills may be considered basic skills for now, but post-high school skills will be the new "basic" as more jobs require more education, Handel said. “The number of jobs for people with a high school diploma continues to decline and the number of jobs for people with a degree continues to grow.”
Moore, president of the DESC, said while figuring out how to expand and fast-track basic skills programs, the ongoing battle among the workforce development community is to let more Detroiters know that good training currently exists.
“The state has eight learning labs in the city of Detroit,” she noted. “Get your math and reading up to where it needs to be. It’s the time to do it no matter how old you are. Sometimes, you just need to be told you can do it. I think that’s what a lot of Detroiters need.”
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.