As developments rise, skilled jobs for Detroiters lag

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Lawrence Counts has the kind of story many want to herald as parts of Detroit boom with development.

Lawrence Counts became a union construction worker this year after attending a skilled trades outreach program. Now, he is helping build Little Caesars Arena.

The 29-year-old Detroiter became a union construction worker this year, a solid middle-class job that he found by attending a skilled trades outreach program at Detroit City Hall. Now, Counts is helping build Little Caesars Arena, the $627.5 million future home ice for the Detroit Red Wings.

“It’s been a great opportunity,” Counts said during a recent blueprint class at the Detroit Carpentry Apprenticeship School in Ferndale.

Contractors pay $553,000 in fines at Wings arena

It’s part of the continual training provided by his union, Commercial Local 687 of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. The average starting wage for an apprentice in skilled trades is about $60,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But Counts’ story doesn’t happen enough in Detroit, some contend.

Less than half of the hundreds of workers building Little Caesars Arena have been Detroit residents, according to data provided by the city Tuesday. The total is 41 percent since work started on the arena in spring 2015 and getting lower — just 33 percent of the workers on the site in July were Detroiters, the latest month for which data is available.

That’s resulted in $675,000 in fines levied on contractors because the arena developer, Olympia Development of Michigan, is required to make sure at least 51 percent of arena workers live in Detroit.

The issue of getting more Detroiters to fill jobs as carpenters, electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and other skilled trades is a political hot button. It’s one of the major demands of two separate ballot proposals this year.

Lance Everson of Detroit works to complete a floor installation assignment at the Detroit Carpentry Apprenticeship School. Unions and contractors say there’s a shortage of trained workers.

One of the measures, Proposal A, was placed on the ballot by a grassroots organization. Detroit’s City Council approved the other: Proposal B. Both measures going before voters on Nov. 8 seek guarantees and other protections for communities where major development is planned. But the ordinances differ on enforcement, levels of investment and city involvement.

Beyond the political fight, unions, developers and contractors say they are battling a shortage of trained workers, which is also a national trend.

“There is no shortage of talent or work ethic or desire in Detroit,” the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights said in a statement.

“But there is a shortage of people with the particular skills and certifications.”

Others involved in workforce training say some unions and contractors simply don’t want to hire persons of color and women. That’s been a problem for decades, some contend.

“There are many who believe some contractors and unions put up obstacles for Detroit residents to get those jobs and then simply argue, ‘Look there is a shortage of qualified candidates,’ ” said Keith Ledbetter, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of Southeast Michigan, a trade association.

The only point everyone agrees upon is too few Detroiters are among the specialized construction workers building Little Caesars Arena and other major projects, from the QLine light rail system to hospital expansions to the dozens of building renovations and new construction happening throughout the city.

The state’s construction industry is still recovering from the deep recession that wiped out nearly 45 percent of jobs in the buildings trade.

“Maybe the state experienced a deep recession. The construction industry actually went through a depression for eight years,” said David Poletis, statewide training director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. “It crushed the skill trades industry and only recently are we seeing a recovery.”

That never stopped the carpenters union from aggressively recruiting potential workers, including working with Detroit Public Schools, community colleges and employment agencies. About 500 people are working in the council’s apprentice program in Ferndale — the most since the early 2000s. Even while they are in the apprentice programs, trainees such as Counts still can get work.

“Is there a shortage of people to fill these opportunities? I would disagree with that,” said Tom Lutz, marketing director of the carpenters union. But the recession, the state’s aging workforce and the decline of vocational training in high schools make it tough, he and other officials contend.

But others involved in getting Detroiters into construction and skilled trades contend many unions make it hard for people of color and women. Before the downturn began around 2008, studies based on 2005 data showed only seven out of 100 construction workers in Detroit were African-American.

Ida Byrd-Hill runs a Detroit nonprofit called Uplift Inc. that helps recruit Detroit residents for construction industry jobs. She has worked on the issue with Detroit Public Schools, unions and other groups for years, she said. Byrd-Hill cites unions that tests applicants and never show the results to the potential workers.

“Nothing is revealed to applicants — their exam score, correct or incorrect answers or ranking on the admissions list,” Byrd- Hill said.

She added that she can name almost a dozen union training centers located in the suburbs that are difficult for Detroiters without a car to reach.

“People have accepted the rhetoric that residents are not math-proficient,” Byrd-Hill said. “No one really knows if Detroiters are math-proficient, as apprenticeship programs do not utilize standardized exams.”

Earlier this year, Byrd-Hill filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor over the lack of Detroiters building Little Caesars Arena. The complaint names the city of Detroit, Olympia Development and 14 unions involved in hiring and training workers.

“The arena is not an isolated incident,” Byrd-Hill said. “Look around at the many construction sites in Detroit right now, take a look at the workforce. Does it represent the population of Detroit?”

Twitter @LouisAguilar_DN

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.