Ingrid Jacques: Detroit kids missing out on good jobs

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The billions of dollars of investment in Detroit are an economic boon to the city. But Detroiters aren’t fully participating in this resurgence because many lack the skills to step into the jobs that are being created.

Business leaders hope that more investment in and better management of the Detroit Public Schools’ five career and technical centers could open doors to work for many more Detroit residents.

Those career centers are suffering from disinvestment and low enrollment. David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, who is working with Mayor Mike Duggan to improve Detroit’s workforce, says the centers are vital for giving Detroit students more pathways to success.

“Students are either college track or on track to go to the streets,” Meador says.

The Legislature is set to send more than $600 million to DPS to wipe away its debt and restructure operations. Rethinking the vocational schools should be part of the discussion.

Given all the other challenges the new DPS will face, and its poor track record of running the career centers, an outside entity such as the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency — the county’s intermediate school district — should partner with business leaders and DPS to get these schools fully operational and fully enrolled.

The time to do this is now, before the school district returns to an elected school board in November and the state gives up control.

Interim DPS Superintendent Alycia Meriweather is on board with boosting enrollment at the vocational schools and investing in these opportunities for students. She says she’d like to work with the business community and harness their support.

“We need a qualified workforce, and we have the ability to train our students to be ready to step into these jobs,” Meriweather says.

But businesses remain skeptical of DPS’ competency. That’s why a partnership with Wayne RESA and business groups is necessary.

“We are prepared to engage when there is a proper and good use of funding,” says Cindy Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions and who is also working with Duggan on workforce development. “We need to align the curriculum to jobs that are actually available.”

That is the key. The demand in Detroit and statewide is strong for skilled labor. More than 8,300 skilled trade jobs are available in Michigan and thousands more are predicted in the next five years.

Meador wants to get other leaders on board to make sure Detroit kids are prepared to step into those jobs. He has given Gov. Rick Snyder and Duggan a set of recommendations supportive of more investment in vocational training. But Meador’s plans for the programs got placed on hold during the DPS bail-out debate.

Now that the Legislature is finishing that work, Meador is reviving the conversation around career training. He’s focusing for now on one of the schools — Randolph — which has an emphasis on skilled trades like electrical construction, pipe fitting and plumbing. Meador says Randolph once enrolled 700 students, but now that number is down to 90.

“Something is really wrong here,” he says. “What are the barriers that prevent kids from going to Randolph? Families may not even be aware this was an option.”

One of the sticking points is funding for the vocational schools. In numerous Michigan counties, including Oakland, money for career and tech programs comes from a countywide dedicated tax. But that’s not the case in Wayne County.

It’s up to individual districts to run their own programs. Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, is surveying the vocational options in the county and what he could do to coordinate those programs so more students could participate. The county does this for special education, and Liepa thinks there is room to do something similar with career training.

Given his interest in DPS’ programs, Liepa should connect with Detroit business leaders and discuss ways to build upon these schools, including making the programs available to other students in Wayne County. Meriweather is open to that idea, too.

Meador envisions the business community stepping in with funding and input about what jobs are needed now. For instance, DTE has an interest in the electric program at Randolph, but other companies could invest in construction or IT training.

“It’s such an obvious thing for us to rally around,” he says. “For Detroit employers committed to hiring Detroiters, that talent doesn’t exist right now.”

In DTE’s case, the company is projecting a third of its workforce will retire within five years. Meador would like to hire Detroiters for many of those top-paying jobs, and that’s why he’s committed to investing in career training at DPS.

“With the skilled trades, you can make a good living doing honorable work,” Meador says. “We need to get this wired right.”