Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

Southeast Michigan is on the cusp of realizing some exciting new infrastructure projects that could mean tens of thousands of area jobs.  Based on several cornerstone City of  Detroit projects, the area could see more than 25,000 new infrastructure-related construction jobs over the next decade, with some major projects breaking ground yet this year.  Jobs made possible by development of new infrastructure, for example, hospitality and service jobs tied to retail shops and other businesses, could spike the number above 60,000.

According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), today’s related workforce — which includes carpenters, cement masons and concrete finishers, construction laborers, electricians, structural iron and steel workers, operating engineers and equipment operators — exceeds 23,000 workers, according to initial estimates.

Of these workers, roughly 88 percent are actively working in the field (utilized), leaving over 2,700 “on the bench” who could deployed but are not currently working.  Annual attrition for this population is about 1.2 percent, or 275 workers per year.  Even though some workers will complete one project and move on to another, the region could see substantial job creation resulting from Detroit-based infrastructure development.

This has policymakers’ wheels turning.  How can we make sure that as many of these jobs as possible are available for Detroit workers?  The city faces 16 percent unemployment, well above the state’s 8.4 percent and the nation’s 7.5 percent.  Underemployment in the city (people who are working but not to the desired extent) is closer to 49 percent.  While there are people available to do this work, many do not possess the required skills and/or face innumerable socio-economic barriers to employment (e.g., relatively low education or skill levels, including literacy and numeracy; challenges with childcare, transportation, housing; drug and incarceration history, etc.).

Recently — through a partnership that included several leaders from the State of Michigan, Mott Foundation and other philanthropic partners — talent stakeholders, including several community based organizations, Michigan Works! agencies and community colleges, and a number of national experts, came together to examine national exemplary practices for ensuring greater opportunities for urban jobseekers in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and beyond.

This conversation occurred in the context of dwindling resources, relatively poorly aligned funding streams (particularly at the federal level), and federal-policy emphasis on rapid labor force attachment (get a job quick) versus long-term workforce attachment, skill development, and earning potential (find a career).

Some of the most highly touted solutions included better alignment of housing, training, and health and human services funding and related service delivery; closer ties between remedial education and training to actual technical training for jobs; career academies for young people that connect early education and training to career exposure and experience; sector/cluster strategies that bring employers, education and trainers, and other talent partners together to identify skill needs and craft solutions relevant to industry partners; boot camps and other strategies that foster soft-skill development and address the social, cultural, and emotional challenges of workers facing complex work-related barriers; and creative contracting strategies with employers.

Fortunately, there are examples of many of these programs right here in Southeast Michigan and others that are about to be under way or could be readily launched.   The challenge is that these opportunities need more attention, resources, and effort to expand and increase their potential. Many also require critical employer engagement and buy-in.  Fortunately, there are many regional champions willing and working to help this occur.  Raising awareness of the job-creation potential of regional infrastructure projects — and a closer, collaborative examination of tested opportunities to ensure those opportunities go to our region’s most challenged workers—are steps in the right direction.

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