Detroit employers say there is a lack of trained, skilled workers. But equally challenging for workers, skilled and unskilled alike, is having a clear path or entry point to trades work.
Access for All, a program created in 2012 by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund (DRWF), is changing that by providing a pathway to opportunities. The DRWF is operated by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan in collaboration with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (large construction contractors), the Michigan Department of Transportation, several construction trades and community-based workforce organizations.
With the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program offers Detroiters more than 290 hours of classroom and worksite training in the skilled trades (carpentry, masonry, operating engineers, plumbing, etc.), while also innovatively equipping workers with a point of “access” to skilled trades employment.
Michael Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Detroit Mercy. Passionate about building things with his hands, he started looking for carpentry jobs in the city. He was turned down by countless contractors because he had no apprenticeship training, which is required for construction work.
Knight was referred to Access for All’s apprenticeship program for Detroiters by SER Metro-Detroit, an organization Knight contacted for assistance with his job search. The news, Knight said, “came at the right place, at the right time.”
Karen Tyler-Ruiz, DRWF director, called the program “invaluable,” adding, “It’s a huge credential.” But, she said, the issue is bigger than just under-skilled workers in need of training.
“You have access to jobs and a sustainable wage,” she said.
About 1,000-1,200 native Detroiters are actively working construction. Tyler-Ruiz said building a workforce to sustain future projects is key, so when new projects come to the city, Detroit residents are ready to be hired. Access for All’s goal is to have every apprentice work for a union or a trade of their choice so they can secure construction jobs on metro Detroit projects.
Access for All officially launched with two groups of 26 apprentices, all Detroiters. Knight was an apprentice in the first group, attending nine weeks of unpaid training at Operating Engineers Local 324 in Detroit.
Quintarus Jenkins, an Access for All Apprenticeship Readiness instructor and business liaison, said adapting to the demands of the training is often the most challenging for students.
“When you go from whole numbers to quadratic equations in nine weeks – you know you’re moving,” Jenkins said. “The majority of the students we get don’t have the employability skills, so they need the program.”
Because of the class’ fast-paced environment and to teach students accountability, apprentices are required to have near-perfect attendance. Students with two absences are automatically dismissed from the program.
Knight found temporary work with a local construction program after graduating from the program in July 2014.
“It’s just a matter of getting your foot in the door, especially as a Detroit resident, there’s just that stigma,” Knight said. “But going through a program like this, it just allows you to break down some barriers.”
Tyler-Ruiz has fielded inquiries about the program from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and hopes to make the program a permanent fixture of the city’s ecosystem to ensure Detroiters can successfully transition into the workforce.
“The innovation is as much about deciding collectively to change the path and point of entry, and making visible the exact preparation that would be needed (much like college prep schools) so that individuals could seek the opportunity, as it is getting the right skills for the opportunity,” said Tyler-Ruiz. “We want to find new way for Detroiters to find themselves in these kinds of opportunities.”