Opinion | Detroit’s future depends on training Detroiters for today’s jobs


Jodie Adams Kirshner is a research professor at the Marron Institute at New York University and teaches bankruptcy law at Columbia Law School. She’s the author of an upcoming book about Detroit, “Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises” (St. Martin’s) set for release Nov. 19.  (Photo by Nora Canfield)

Last winter, after Fiat Chrysler announced it would spend nearly $5 billion to build the first new auto assembly plant in Detroit in nearly three decades, President Trump tweeted, “They are all coming back to the USA, it’s where the action is!” 

In referencing Detroit, however, the message described a city that used to have nearly a dozen large auto plants. The message landed not long after General Motors announced plans to shut down its Detroit-Hamtramck plant, eliminating 1,500 jobs. Tax incentives to attract the new Fiat Chrysler plant cost Detroit nearly $400 million.

Trump tapped into the belief many Americans still cling to that a resurgence in manufacturing remains possible. The nation persists in romanticizing the old portrait of a man who earns a living wage in the auto industry, secure in his health insurance and pension. But the economy has evolved and changed, leaving many people, including many Detroit residents, behind. 

Within a week after the city approved the land deal for the new plant, 20,000 Detroiters signed up to receive information about getting a job there, and scam artists charged people to get on the list.

I spent the last three-and-a-half years in Detroit studying the impact of the city’s bankruptcy on its residents. The city has the lowest workforce participation rate in the country, reflecting race, poverty, and low education. Though the unemployment rate has fallen, U.S. News & World Report still finds a less healthy job market there than in similarly sized metro areas. Last year the personal finance website WalletHub rated Detroit the country’s second worst place to find a job. Yet the city has been adding tech positions at a steady clip, with companies like Google, Twitter and Microsoft opening offices there.

The reality is that over half of today’s jobs require some technological skills. Beyond technical positions themselves, various roles demand increasing levels of technical literacy. Even the auto company Ford is working to overhaul Detroit’s train station into a tech hub attractive to software developers, and other auto companies are striving to transition into providers of software and services, rather than traditional cars.

We need to be asking what we can do for people, including Detroit residents, who are trying to get by with old skills. A common theme among the people I spoke with for my research was insufficient outlets for small-scale construction skills. Many of the same people lacked auto insurance ‒ the city has the most expensive auto insurance in the country ‒ or the professional licenses necessary for formal positions with outside contractors. 

Three of the seven individuals I followed in depth, tried (and mostly failed) to get by finding odd construction jobs through word of mouth. (A fourth person had a college degree but commuted an hour each way to the suburbs to work at a call center, and the fifth worked off the books cleaning suburban houses.) 

Despite an executive order mandating that city residents receive the majority of construction positions in projects receiving tax breaks, 20 of 25 monitored projects have breached the requirement. When the auto parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate opened a new Detroit facility last year with a $6 million tax abatement, it breached the duty to hire local workers for the $160 million construction. One-hundred-sixty-thousand residents applied for 500 manufacturing jobs there.

Fines for companies like Flex-N-Gate have funded training courses that more than 3,000 Detroit residents have completed. Other training programs including the Kresge Foundation’s cradle-to-career plan for the former Marygrove College campus, new skilled trades apprenticeship programs, new student summer jobs programs, further projects supported by the financial services company JP Morgan Chase and the state of Michigan, and public commitments by Mayor Mike Duggan offer a start. 

The future of the city lies in employing more of its residents, the city’s direct tax base and the linchpin of demand for local retail and commercial services and the housing market. The city needs roughly 100,000 new jobs for its residents. Securing those positions will depend on improving public education, transportation to existing work opportunities, training and access to capital for entrepreneurship. 

Improving services in all those areas seems a better investment than old-fashioned corporate incentives to attract manufacturing.

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Thu, 11/14/2019 - 8:39am

Great Op-Ed! I cringe anytime I hear a candidate say "We're going to rebuild the middle class by bringing back manufacturing!" Those days are long gone, boomer. Accept, adjust, advance.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 8:54am

It is interesting there is nothing about the role/responsibility of the individuals in all of this.
It seems all we hear is about what others are to do for those who need jobs. There is mention of 3,000 that have completed on training program, but nothing about how many thousands haven't. How many jobs are available and how many are actually enrolling, how many are completing as percentage of those enrolling?
Are all the claims of programs, incentives, of new job openings creating a false hope that all they have to do is apply and they will get the job?
It seems to be the same old story that the education system is disappointing and no one talks about what the student needs to do to succeed. Why isn't there any description of that it takes to learn, why isn't there anything about reading, math, science [the reality is the new jobs whether it be in the trades, in the operations, in the support of operations all need people that have such knowledge]? When do people hear that they have to work to learn, whether in K-12 or special knowledge and skills training? When do they hear that a high school diploma is a valuable step to getting the new jobs and a career? When do they learn that no one can learn for them, that they have to do what it takes to learn? When they hear that learning how to learn is necessary to succeed in and prosper for a career?

I am glad to hear about all the efforts and investments around people to help them prepare for the new jobs.
When do people hear find out that all of that will change nothing if they individually don't do the necessary work?
Why don't we hear about the importance of the work ethic? When do people learn about the work ethic and where do the learn it? Why don't we hear about the role/responsibilities of the individual in learning, in jobs, in all of the programs? Whether it is in public schools, in the job training programs, in the jobs programs for Detroit/all of Michigan when do people get told there is only one way to learn and that by working at learning?

The one thing my Dad [8th grade education] gave me was learning required your work. It took me a few extra years to actually to apply his lesson to me, but he was right. Where are people getting that lesson today? Not from anything we read about the jobs programs.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:30am

This is why conservatives are fundamentally incapable of solving any of our current problems: A complete and utter refusal to acknowledge systemic problems. If a person is born in poverty; lives in dilapidated housing; goes to a crumbling, underfunded school; and graduates into an adulthood living in a neighborhood where there are no jobs that pay a living wage (if there are jobs at all), what exactly is grit going to get them? Government policies and our economic system intentionally created this situation; it takes more than individual perseverance to correct it.

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 9:27am


You seem to hold those that could benefit from the jobs programs in low esteem. Where I believe they are capable of succeeding as long as they are trained in how to learn and how to turn the work ethic into personal habits, all you can do is blame a system and ignore what the people can do.
I want to talk about people’s role/responsibility in their successes, work, education, life, and you seem to be downright hostility to those who believe that the individual not a system or a government agency is what creates personal successes [learning, work, life]. Are you simply distrustful of people, do lack confidence in the individual, do you feel it is only those in your circles/government know how to succeed, how to provide your desired results for others? I have many experiences and found the limitations on the individual because of gender, ethnicity, location, family financial status are not as insurmountable as you indicate. It is the within the person to use all that is around them to take control of their lives. I believe in the helping hand not the controlling systems, not of a government elite taking control away from the individual.
I am surprise with you knowledge and experience and point of view that you don’t question, listen, offering scenarios to learn what merits other ideas may have to offer. I suggest the idea of personal role/responsibilities, I suggest a path for to applying the idea, and I show full faith in the capacities of those who are struggling and what do you do? You try to bully me into submission by labeling me as someone you believe is less than caring, less then thoughtful, less than experienced. You rant about all of the barriers that are insurmountable never considering what experiences helped me to develop my point of view. Where you seem to believe where a person is when they are young determines what they will be for the rest of their life, I believe that each person has choices, some entail added barriers to overcome, but it is still what they decide to do that determines they lives. And important part of how a person decides in knowing their options and what has worked for so many others.
If you want to talk about the problems/barriers people face and see if there are new or different approaches to help people succeed I would like to hear your thoughts and like to talk about how they could be made to work. If you simply need to vent, I here to listen, but I won’t shrink from commenting [learned from overcoming many things on your list and a few more].

For me, 'grit' was critical to earning my degree and successes in solving problems in my work. Can you deal with some examples?

middle of the mit
Fri, 11/15/2019 - 11:51pm

[[For me, 'grit' was critical to earning my degree and successes in solving problems in my work. Can you deal with some examples?]]



Sun, 11/17/2019 - 12:35am

What problem/issue is most pressing and let's talk about it and see what you are doing now and what your ideas are to do it differently?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 11:00am

Problems with training programs. How successful have been our previous government sponsored job training programs? How will you be different? How do you really know what jobs will be in demand 3 - 5 years from now, let alone in 10? What percentage of success in a job is book knowledge about that field and skill verses just plain work habbits?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 3:38pm

You're absolutely right Matt. We should definitely lock job training behind a paywall. That's the American Way. And it's worked so well, for so long, too!

middle of the mit
Sat, 11/16/2019 - 12:10am

Where are all the job training programs coming from the private sector? Why are they not starting their own colleges or trade schools to educate the work force THEY NEED FOR THE FUTURE?

Because they are too busy sucking everything they can out of the FEDS & State and taxpayers that they can, then they will sit back, relax, and enjoy ALL OF AMERICA AND THE WORLD, without the pesky tourists that were the middle and working class.


Does that meet your NON PC TERMS?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 5:35pm

Same crap we have been hearing for decades. Tell us something new. Did anyone tell this "scholar" that GM is investing $3 billion in their Hamtramck plant and it is not closing. Perhaps getting an op ed from someone who actually lived in the area would be helpful.