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Motown Rising

Detroit is in a curious predicament: It has high unemployment but also thousands of open jobs in tech and high-skilled manufacturing. The unprecedented solution that its businesses, schools and local agencies have devised could serve as a model for the nation.

Author Jon Marcus

ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL HERTZBERG

FRANK LITFIN FEELS LIKE he’s tried everything, from the local job bank to the help-wanted ads on Craigslist. “I’m at the point where I’m ready to go out and stand on the road in a chicken suit carrying a sign,” he says.

But Litfin isn’t looking for a job. He has one, overseeing hiring at a toolmaking company near Detroit. What he’s trying to find is employees—particularly ones who can run the complicated CNC, or computer numerical control, machine tools at the booming plant. The company, Moeller Manufacturing, has about 120 machinists, and Litfin is struggling to hire 30 more. The task is daunting, but at least a little easier than it was a few months ago, when he had 70 positions to fill.

While you wouldn’t think a metro area with 11.3 percent unemployment could be facing a worker shortage, such is the paradox of Detroit today. In this automaking capital there are 2,000 jobs languishing unfilled at companies like Litfin’s that build, use or maintain CNC machine tools—all of which require intensive training. The many firms working in the fast-growing field of hybrid technology have more than 1,000 vacancies among them. A cluster of three high-tech companies downtown has a combined 500 openings.

Detroit is not unique in this regard. Despite nagging unemployment, there are 3.6 million jobs nationwide sitting empty, the U.S. Department of Labor says, because employers contend they can’t find people with the right skills. What sets this hard-luck Midwestern metropolis apart, however, is the dazzling speed at which it’s training prospective employees for those unfilled positions.

Businesses, schools and public agencies—determined to overcome their city’s roller-coaster economic history, over dependence on the Big Three automakers and general bad rap—have come together in an unprecedented effort to bridge the skills gap. “We have an urgency placed on us like no other community in this country has ever faced,” says Sharon Miller, vice chancellor of external affairs at Oakland Community College, which has five campuses in metro Detroit. “When you hit bottom first, you’re the first ones to try to get back out. And we hit bottom first.”

When Hewlett-Packard opened an outpost in nearby Pontiac, Mich., in 2011, it ran head-on into the IT worker shortage. “When I first started hiring, I was surprised to find that we weren’t overwhelmed with people applying,” says Jane Montecillo, a senior manager at HP. The firm needed 200 people to do work for public-sector clients, but unemployment in technical fields, including programming, was effectively zero. So Miller’s community college stepped up and in three months created and filled an accelerated course to train programmers who could build and test software applications. Many of the trainees now work at HP; when they graduated, Montecillo brought the celebration cake.

In the Detroit of even a few years ago, “it would have taken eons to get training set up,” says Michelle Salvatore, director of recruiting at former Intuit subsidiary Quicken Loans, which took a gamble on moving to downtown Detroit instead of sending its IT work overseas. The firm still has 120 openings, even after hiring 440 IT workers last year. “Now people here respond to everything with a sense of urgency.”

One reason for this urgency is that training programs have for so long relied on outdated labor data in a fast-shifting economy. The need for CNC machinists in Detroit, for example, plummeted in the period leading up to 2010, which remains the last year for which the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has issued figures. In response, training programs canceled machinist classes. Although demand rebounded dramatically in the two subsequent years, schools were still working off the old figures.

“What the federal government was telling us was the exact opposite of what was actually happening,” says Lisa Baragar Katz, executive director of the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) for Southeast Michigan. “People weren’t encouraged to go into these fields because they were being told there weren’t any jobs there.”

Taking matters into its own hands, WIN’s coalition of 28 employers, three business incubators, seven workforce development boards and nine community colleges around Detroit uses spidering technology to comb through real-time online help-wanted advertisements and analyze what jobs are open and what skills or education they require. Then it compares them with the labor supply— based on résumés on file with the local job boards—to keep up with workplace needs.

As a result of all this, the Detroit area, which has begun to call itself “Automation Alley,” is adding IT jobs faster than Silicon Valley, Boston or the North Carolina Research Triangle. Some 1,000 high-tech companies do business in this area, which has the highest concentration of technology workers in the Midwest. Detroit is now fourth in the nation in the percentage of employment concentrated in technology.

But while the effort may be new, locals will tell you it’s all of a piece with the city’s history. “It’s our job to be innovators,” Miller says. “All great innovation started in Detroit.”

JON MARCUS, a reporter based in Boston, covers education for the Washington Post, USA Today and the online editions of Time and NBC News.

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