As expats return to Detroit, its pool of workers hungry for jobs could offer companies solutions

Dustin Walsh, from Crain’s Detroit Business, focuses on Detroit’s employment landscape, and using employment data from Detroit Future City’s 139 Square Miles report.

As expats return to Detroit, its pool of workers hungry for jobs could offer companies solutions
By: Dustin Walsh
Crain’s Detroit Business
09/10/2017
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Employers across the U.S. have a consistent message: There isn’t enough available talent.

Detroit has too many workers who want jobs.

Those facts mean that the city’s unemployment problem could be a big opportunity for businesses that need workers.

The need for jobs for Detroiters and the opportunities presented by its supply of available workers will come into focus at this week’s Detroit Homecoming IV, presented by Crain’s Detroit Business. Attendees, who are native Detroiter “expats” who have found success elsewhere, are set to learn about ways that they can help beef up Detroit’s jobs picture.

Among the ideas they’ll hear are the potential for outsourcing jobs such as call center work to Detroit, or steering office purchases to Detroit- and Michigan-based businesses.

As the working-age population across the nation continues to rapidly decline, coupled with a strengthening economy, Detroit’s unemployed and out-of-the-labor force population may provide businesses in need of workers with new hope — particularly as the city gets better at training potential workers to match what employers need.

The difference in employment pictures between Detroit and much of the rest of the country is stark.

The unemployment rate in the city was 9.4 percent in July, compared with 3.7 percent for the state of Michigan and 4.3 percent for the U.S. as a whole. That rate remains one of the highest in the nation, providing prospective employers a large pool of potential applications.

Plus, Detroit leads the nation in major cities in working age people out of the labor force. Only 49 percent of Detroit residents aged 16 to 64 were employed in 2015. In Cleveland, it’s 55 percent; in Atlanta, 69 percent.

If Detroit’s unemployed are put to work and demand increases, those no longer looking could be pulled back into the labor picture.

In 2015, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan revived the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board, co-chaired by Strategic Staffing Solutions CEO Cindy Pasky and DTE Energy Vice Chairman Dave Meador, with the region’s top executives and workforce development agency heads to restructure its efforts to prepare Detroiters for the future economy, and more importantly, get them back to work.

The board’s audacious goal was, and still is, to put 100,000 of those unemployed Detroiters back to work. In the near-term, it has set a more reasonable, yet still bold, goal of 40,000 new jobs in the next four years.

“We’re planning for what we expect to happen; for Detroit’s economy to expand and to recapture our place in the U.S. and, maybe, abroad,” said Nicole Sherard-Freeman, president and CEO of the Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. and former corporate consulting executive. “The way we are approaching job readiness with a large urban population, quite frankly, is aggressive and none of our peers in other cities are keeping pace.”

The board is initially focusing on five industries — health care, manufacturing, construction and transportation, information technology and retail, hospitality and entertainment.

Its work includes pilot programs that have trained 240 Detroiters this year for patient care associate and patient sitter roles at Detroit’s three health systems, more than 100 jobs in four IT training programs, a prison reentry program that’s trained 175 convicts in culinary arts and hi-lo operation and dozens more in basic construction.

It’s a small start, but it’s a massive operation to steer new training methods away form traditional workforce development, said Sherard-Freeman. There are nearly 400 workforce development organizations operating in the city, and the work has been uncoordinated.

“We always thought that if we built training programs, jobs readiness programs and market it differently, just go out and tell people, they’d be lined up around the building. That’s not true in Detroit or in Baltimore or in Kansas City,” she said. “We thought we knew how to do this, we’d talk to employers and tell them how to train their employees. That’s not how it works. Maybe that’s not how it ever worked.”

The board and the DESC began validating existing programs by creating a demand forecast, securing hiring commitments from employers and working with them to design training, largely for the first time in the city’s workforce development history.

Barriers still remain, such as a weak public transportation system, the hangover of unpaid driver responsibility fees that keep people from driving legally and illiteracy from a failed public school district. The board is working to knock some obstacles down.

But if the board is successful in reaching its 40,000 jobs goal, the city could serve as a beacon to expanding businesses across the U.S. No other city has the available space — 900 vacant industrial buildings spread throughout the city, according to a June report by Detroit Future City. Mash in a ready workforce, and Detroit is an attractive solution.

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