'Requires more knowledge than in past': Detroit, FCA work to match residents to Jeep jobs

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Ciera Brown wants a well-paying job with benefits. The stay-at-home mother has been out of work since last year due to illness, and she’s ready to get back into the workforce.

Brown is among the thousands of hopefuls from Detroit and beyond looking for employment when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles opens its $2.5 billion Jeep plant expansion on Detroit's east side. The investment is expected to bring nearly 5,000 jobs. 

“This is truly a blessing for young people in the community,” Ciera Brown, 31, said about the Jeep factory expansion.

“This is truly a blessing for young people in the community,” said Brown, 31. “Everybody, they’re looking for a job, something close and nearby. You don’t have to ride all the way out to Novi to have a good job."

Experts say there could be some challenges in finding qualified Detroiters to fill and maintain the production and skilled trade positions to a level that would please city leaders. City officials, however, say the initial response it has received from interested Detroit residents — more than 11,000 — signals that many Detroiters could be willing and able to take on the new jobs. Detroit is leading the effort to screen applicants for the positions.

Fiat Chrysler got the green light last month from the city and state for its plan to invest $1.6 billion in expanding its Mack Avenue facilities with a new plant and $900 million to modernize its Jefferson North Assembly Plant for production of the next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as an all-new three-row full-size Jeep SUV and plug-in hybrid models. The company plans to introduce vehicles from the new assembly plant by late 2020.

In a community benefits agreement drafted by an advisory council of neighborhood residents, the city and the automaker — and approved by City Council last month — FCA has been charged with hiring as many Detroiters as it can to fill the nearly 5,000 jobs that remain after union-hiring obligations are met.

"Detroit is our home," said Jodi Tinson, spokeswoman for FCA. "To create a viable business, it is important to enhance the community around it. Offering good-paying jobs for the community provides stability for everyone."

During an early-access application window, interviews for Detroit residents will begin in late August or early September, according to the city. After that, the application window will be open for all other job-seekers. Conditional offers will be made late this year with start dates by early 2020. 

It’s in the best interest of FCA and Detroit to execute the hiring process well, said Erik Gordon, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

"I think FCA and Detroit will put good faith and resources and efforts to try to make this a real success,” he said.

The task of hiring and retaining Detroiters could bring some challenges, however, Gordon said. Among issues that could arise are finding workers with regular work histories and ensuring reliable transportation through the city's bus system.

Recreational and medical marijuana usage may also pose an issue for job seekers. FCA has a zero-tolerance policy against it, despite it being legal in Michigan. The automaker started communicating about the importance of being able to pass a drug test as part of its hiring process as soon as the project was approved.

"We will continue reinforcing this message at all of our job fairs and training programs," Tinson said.

Police Chief James Craig addresses the FCA community block party this month at Southeastern High School football field in Detroit. More than 11,000 Detroit residents have expressed interest in the factory jobs.

'A lot more knowledge'

The plant expansion is expected to add 4,950 jobs, with positions first offered to temporary workers and laid-off workers from other FCA plants to fulfill union obligations.

Among those that could be first in line include workers laid off earlier this year due to a shift reduction at a Fiat Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois. Tinson said many of those 1,400 employees have volunteered for positions in other plants in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

The jobs in Detroit will pay an average of $58,000 annually and will include assembly line workers, plant managers and skilled-trades positions, according to FCA.

The automaker is currently hiring for skilled-trades positions at Detroit area plants, Tinson said. It also is working with the city's Detroit at Work program to fill skilled trades and production positions at the Mack and Jefferson North plants. 

It’s going to be critical that Detroiters are prepared when they apply for the jobs, said Marick Masters, a professor of management at Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business.

“Today’s auto workers are much more skilled," he said. "It requires a lot more knowledge than in the past. People aren’t just going to… like they did in the '30s and '40s, walk into the plant and say 'I’m ready' and they’re going to take you that very day. I think what we have to do in Detroit is make certain that our workforce is as ready as possible.”

'Managing expectations'

City officials say Detroiters have heard the message about the jobs. As of Thursday, more than 11,000 Detroit residents had filled out an online form to attend an information session. This followed 30,000 people requesting information on the hiring process.

“This is the time for people to really commit to the application process and apply, because there’s so much opportunity because of this unique partnership that we have with FCA to help folks get ready to take these opportunities,” said Nicole Stallings Bates, the city’s director of employer engagement for workforce development.

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield is one of the council members who pushed for a written promise for a set number or percentage of jobs for Detroit residents. She hopes Detroit at Work will do what it can to prepare residents. 

"The main thing now is managing expectations," Sheffield said. "That's why I was very adamant about making sure there was something in writing that had some specific goals around how many Detroiters they would hire. I think oftentimes it's too easy to throw them out and say they're not qualified."

The city on Monday will hold the first of dozens of information sessions planned for the summer. Session dates, times and locations are shared with those who pre-register. Those without internet access can visit the city’s Detroit at Work career centers to fill out forms and applications. Job-seekers can also call the centers for assistance. Detroit at Work has three centers with hopes to expand to eight.

The events are scheduled for days, evenings and weekends. Applicants will be offered follow-up assistance in filling out applications and training for interviews. Tutoring will be offered off-site for those needing help with a math and mechanical-reasoning assessment. Help will be offered for those needing to verify high school diplomas or obtain Social Security cards.

Mark Stewart, chief operating officer for FCA North America, talks to the crowd. The plant expansion is expected to add 4,950 jobs, with positions first offered to temporary workers and laid-off workers.

'It would mean a lot'

Brown, the stay-at-home mom, is scheduled for an information session in mid-July.

“If I were able to get this job, it would mean a lot for me and my family,” she said. “We would be able to enjoy ourselves. We would be able to go on a family vacation, the benefits. My children would have dental insurance, health insurance.”

Sandra Judkins' home sits in the footprint of the project's impact area.  A 20-year employee of a finishing company, the 47-year-old hopes for a job with the automaker. "I could walk to work if I have to," she said.

As part of the community benefits agreement, FCA is donating $1 million for Southeastern High School to start a Manufacturing Career Academy.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sees his district’s involvement as a long-term strategy. The partnership will offer paid internships as soon as this summer and allow students to shadow workers in plants, Vitti said. The Manufacturing Career Academy will be up and running for the 2020-21 school year.

“We know our students certainly have the talent, and all they need is the exposure and strengthening confidence so they can compete for those types of jobs," he said, "but that’s only the beginning of what I think could result in a direct pipeline for employment.”

The partnerships could lead to management, entrepreneurship and engineering opportunities for students based on the exposure at the high school level, he said.

The automaker also will partner with the Wayne County Community College District to start an Automotive Manufacturing Co-op program.

The east side campus of WCCCD sits within the impact area of the plant expansion and offers programs such as welding. Students on that campus are mostly Detroit residents, said WCCCD Chancellor Curtis Ivery. 

In coming weeks, the college will set up a 3,000-square-foot space to prepare Detroiters for the plant jobs, Ivery said. He is optimistic it could be ready within 30 days.

“In some instances, it will deal with soft skills, completing an application, being job-ready, career-ready," he said. "We’re going to play a major role in that because of our location."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

FCA hiring

Detroiters seeking employment at a Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit must do so through the city's Detroit at Work program. 

To pre-register for an information session, visit www.detroitatwork.com/fca or call Detroit at Work at (313) 962-9675. 

Call center hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays. 

Detroit at Work centers are at:

  • Samaritan Center, 5555 Conner
  • SER Metro, 9301 Michigan
  • Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers