Jacques: Partnership puts Detroit school to work

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The foundation for building a broader middle class in Detroit is being laid by the city’s business leaders and Mayor Mike Duggan, who hope to turn a long neglected vocational school into a jobs factory.

The collaboration is working with the Detroit Public Schools Community District to attack the gap between employers looking for skilled trades workers and residents who lack the training for the good-paying jobs being created in the city.

Finishing touches are being made on the plan, which includes enrolling 300 high school students at Randolph Career and Technical Center starting next fall. About 100 students are currently in programs at the school that once trained 700.

“We want to create a premier technical school and put Detroiters to work,” says David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy.

Meador and Cindy Pasky, CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, head the city’s Workforce Development Board and were charged by the mayor to boost skills training in the city. They turned their attention to Randolph.

Along with boosting the programs for high school students, the group intends to create an adult training program at the school with evening classes.

While Randolph will remain in the school district, the project will be managed by an oversight committee composed of members from the workforce board and school district.

Meador has devoted several years seeking ways to improve Randolph, which focuses on skilled trades such as electrical construction, pipe fitting and welding. He has a first-hand understanding of the importance of vocational training. DTE is projecting a third of its workforce will retire within five years, and the company wants to hire city residents. But many don’t have the skills.

Shortages exist in a variety of the skilled trades, making it tough to find qualified workers for local projects. Contractors building the new Red Wings arena were fined $675,000 this year for failing to hire enough Detroiters.

“It wasn’t because they weren’t trying,” Meador says.

This week Duggan doubled down on the mandate to hire city workers, broadening the requirement to hire at least 51 percent of local residents to include more projects.

That’s a good goal, but, without trained workers, an unrealistic one. The new partnership at Randolph should help.

“Detroiters want to work, given an opportunity,” Pasky says. “They are the best employees you can have. Remove barriers, create opportunity and you’ll have more applicants than you need for good jobs.”

This effort is good news for the Detroit school district, as it seeks to better its reputation following a state bailout. Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent of DPSCD, has worked closely with the nonprofit workforce board and the mayor’s office.

“It’s a very collaborative group and singularly focused on restoring Randolph to a world-class facility,” Meriweather says. “It’s a creation more than a restoration.”

It’s a large project and could cost up to $10 million, given the long neglect of the school as the district faced steep enrollment declines and neared bankruptcy. The equipment and building need to be overhauled. Much of that funding will come from outside investment from businesses with a stake in developing future employees. Some foundations have shown an interest, too.

Meriweather, who became interim superintendent in March, quickly became aware of the challenges at Randolph — in addition to the barriers Meador had previously encountered at the district.

“Helping us do things for kids shouldn’t be so hard,” she says. “My approach has always been, why not? If it’s good for kids and good for the city, let’s find a way to make this work.”

The district is also committed to attracting experts to teach in these programs. That’s an essential piece in making this program work. Lawmakers have given the Detroit district the option to hire instructors that haven’t gone through the state’s teacher certification process. Randolph presents the ideal opportunity to bypass that requirement and bring on qualified instructors familiar with the workplace.

Meriweather is now on a mission to spread the word to students about the program to boost enrollment. When the new school board takes over the district in January, it should also encourage this endeavor.

“You can land a good-paying job and contribute to the development of the city,” she says. “We just need to get the story out that this is what’s happening.”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques