Editorial: Don’t punish builders for city worker shortage
New building projects are sprouting all over Detroit, and that's good news for the city's comeback. Yet developers are having a difficult time meeting the city's stipulation that 51% of labor for these projects go to Detroit workers.
And it's not because they aren't trying — there simply aren't enough Detroiters ready to step into these skilled trades jobs.
Contractors who don't meet the benchmarks face significant fines, and city officials say a lot of that money is directed back into training programs.
The Detroit News has reported that 16% of the labor on the Detroit Pistons Performance Facility went to Detroiters; 15% of the Michigan Central Depot went to Detroiters; 19% of the Monroe Block development, and only 4% of labor to the Brooks Tower development went to Detroiters.
As of June, the city has collected $6.8 million in fines from developers unable to meet the 51% benchmark.
Charity Dean, director of the city’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department, says while these numbers seem lackluster, workforce development efforts are making great strides in Detroit.
The 2016 mandate has its roots in an order passed by former Mayor Coleman Young in the '80s which required 50% of the labor for publicly funded construction projects to be given to Detroiters.
In 2016, Mayor Mike Duggan expanded the reach of the 51% requirement, yet he recognized the shortfall in the worker supply, and tweaked the order so that fines would be paid as contributions toward workforce training.
“A developer is in compliance if a) they meet the 51% requirement, or b) they have made their contribution. I have not seen a commercial development project where 51% has been achieved,” Dean says.
Should Detroit have such a high bar if it's unreachable?
Nicole Sherard-Freeman, executive director of workforce development for the city, says that, while lofty, the goal is attainable.
"It isn't going to happen in the next two years," she says, "but it's more than a reference point."
Sherard-Freeman says this is a long-term commitment for the city, and that educating a skilled tradesman is a four or five year process.
The city has trained 1,222 Detroiters in transportation and manufacturing, and 853 in construction, HVAC and energy since October of 2017, according to the city's workforce development communications team.
In addition, since much of the highskilled labor in Detroit is awarded to union members, the city has encouraged unions to participate in their workforce development programs.
Detroit’s Skilled Trade Employment Program incentivizes the unions to accept Detroiters into apprenticeships. If a union signs a STEP agreement to raise the number of apprenticeships awarded to Detroiters to 25% and to increase its number of active Detroit union members, then the city considers the workers of that union in compliance with the executive order.
Yet, while numerous unions have signed agreements with STEP, other unions opt to simply pay the fines.
The city has also partnered with other workforce training efforts, such as the revamped Randolph Career and Technical Center.
Employing more Detroiters is an important aim, but the city must ensure its goals are attainable as more projects come to town.