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Detroit & Skilled Trades

By Dawson Bell

Skilled workers are key to the city’s prosperity

Throughout most of the last century, Detroit had one of the deepest pools of skilled workers in the world. That is, workers who contributed mightily to the success of the area’s manufacturing and construction industries, and to the region’s prosperity. That began to change in the last few decades, culminating in 2008-09 with the near collapse of the domestic auto industry and the flight of skilled workers to other parts of the country.

Don O’Connell, executive director of the International Union of Operating Engineers (heavy equipment operators and related occupations) Local 324, said his organization lost thousands of members during the recession. But, O’Connell added, a turnaround is well underway.

With the rebound of the auto industry, Detroit’s bankruptcy reorganization and an overall sense of area rebirth, O’Connell said the problem has become one of finding people with the right skills to do the jobs. “Now we’re scrambling to refill the ranks, trying to lure back those who left,” he said, along with recruiting new workers for training and apprenticeship programs.

To that end, the union has been working with a variety of partners to expand the area’s pool of qualified skilled trades workers. An Operating Engineers training program for Detroiters has produced 26 graduates in the last year and has a current class of 13. Participants are expected to treat the experience like a real job, learning about productivity, safety and quality, and spend their final week in the field working on job sites.

Using a federal grant channeled through the city, another group of 40 young Detroiters are employed this summer boarding up abandoned school buildings. Local 324 has also partnered with Detroit schools to revive training at Randolph Career Technical High School, with the goal of establishing a sustainable pipeline to careers for Detroiters coming out of high school, O’Connell said.

“We need to raise awareness among Detroiters about the opportunities in our industry,” he said. “A 4-year college degree is not for everyone. The (skilled trades) attract people who like to work with their minds and their hands … people who take satisfaction in seeing the tangible results of their work. These are good careers.”

The manufacturing sector has also stepped up its employment training initiatives. Sakthi Automotive, the international conglomerate, which has become a major Tier-1 auto supplier, announced in the spring that it would convert the old Southwestern High School in Detroit into a new center for manufacturing, employee wellness and worker training as part of a roughly $31 million expansion. American Axle, in partnership with local universities, is planning an advanced technology development center at its 192-acre Detroit campus, part of a $20 million redevelopment at the site, which once served as a manufacturing hub.

And LIFT, the federally subsidized Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow facility located in Corktown, is incorporating skills training as a major component in its quest to develop new lightweight materials for military and civilian vehicles.

“What you see here is not just about advancing technology; it’s about advancing people,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said at LIFT’s January kickoff event. “The education and training collaborations will help prepare Detroiters for employment opportunities to design, build and repair the next generation of lightweight vehicles.”

Pamela Moore, president and CEO of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC), the city’s workforce development agency, said the pace of change is rapidly accelerating. “We’ve seen a major difference in just the last year,” Moore said, a year in which DESC placed 12,000 clients in new jobs.

“I’m a native Detroiter. I grew up when it was great to be a child here, and I saw the devastation (of deindustrialization). But it’s coming back. My message to Detroiters now is: ‘You can have hope again.'”