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Why Detroit employers must stop seeking a purple squirrel

From: Detroit Free Press

By: Nathan Bomey

February 27, 2015

Here are five insights into how to address Detroit’s structural unemployment crisis.

Stop looking for a purple squirrel because you won’t find one.

That’s the message Detroit’s workforce development leaders believe that local employers need to absorb. The purple squirrel is a buzzword for perfectly qualified job candidates who meet all the myriad skills listed on job postings.

They don’t exist.

The leaders, speaking today at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference, addressed the practical challenges of rehabilitating the local workforce in the aftermath of the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

“What’s difficult, especially with people who have been unemployed for a long time, is there is no quick fix,” said Lisa Katz, executive director of Workforce Intelligence Network. “There are some jobs that are easier to enter into than others but a lot of the time the pay reflects that.”

To address Detroit’s structural unemployment crisis, the city needs to place a substantial emphasis on retraining initiatives.

Here are five key insights gleaned from a panel conversation on the city’s unemployment crisis.

Stop pretending that highly qualified employees will pop up without any effort.

Too many companies aren’t investing in training to get new employees the skills they need to succeed on the job.

“Employers spend more on coffee for their staff than they do on training,” Katz said.

Instead, they should plunge a portion of that money into training investments.

Pamela Moore, CEO of Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., said the average employer spends up to $2,000 seeking the purple squirrel.

Many unemployed Detroiters lack the basic soft skills necessary to thrive in the workplace.

Soft skills involve interpersonal communication, showing up to work on time, abstaining from banned substances, conflict resolution and dressing appropriately in the workplace.

“That’s one of the major challenges we’re seeing,” said Shawna Forbes, vice chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District’s School of Continuing Education and Workforce Development.

But Forbes said that soft skills should be integrated into training programs to help workers understand how to address these issues.

High school students in Detroit need to understand that there are more options than getting a four-year college degree.

Those options include apprenticeships, professional training opportunities and associate’s degrees. Students must also be told that they can “earn and learn” at the same time by gradually taking classes while maintaining a job, said Moore.

“There are so many pathways out of high school and we need to tell our young people about those pathways,” Moore said.

Derek Turner, vice president of operations for information technology training group Grand Circus, said employers need to grasp that blindly requiring a four-year degree isn’t always fruitful.

“Should it cost $50,000 to demonstrate you can work hard?” he asked. “I’ve seen many non-hard-working four-year degree holders.”

Structurally unemployed workers do not necessarily have to settle for low-skill jobs.

Katz said that for some unemployed workers, eight weeks of IT training can qualify them to do quality assurance work, for example.

“Even if those people don’t come with a degree,” she said.

Many structurally unemployed people in Detroit need practical help.

“A huge barrier for many individuals is transportation,” Moore said.

The recent viral story of Detroiter James Robertson’s 21-mile daily walking commute simply highlighted the transportation challenges that many low-income Detroiters face in finding jobs.

But the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Community Ventures program, which Moore’s program administers in Detroit, helps provide practical assistance to structurally unemployed people who need help paying for daycare, utilities or uniforms, for example.

“Some people need lots and lots of support before they’re ready to go into a job,” Moore said.