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Training for Detroit's future (part 1)

Mar 18, 2015

The unemployment rate in Detroit is nearly double the statewide rate. Detroit residents need jobs. But too few people have marketable skills. What does it take to go from out-of-work to trained and employed?

For 30 years a group in Detroit has been training people to go to work as machinists, in IT, and beginning this year, in health care.

“When folks come out of here with that Focus: HOPE stamp of approval, you can be certain that you’re getting somebody who should work out pretty doggone well in your workplace,” said William Jones, CEO of Focus: HOPE.

Focus:HOPE CEO William Jones.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

But there’s a lot to learn before getting to the workplace. I sat with a class for a few moments watching as individual students were called up front to read a gauge.

The instructor was coaxing and encouraging each student. “He has everything up, having found all the values and the reading is…”

Quietly, the student answered, “Three hundred and 58 thousandths of an inch.”

"Very good," the instructor said warmly. The entire class applauded.

This is critical stuff. When you have to measure a piece of metal being turned on a lathe or milled down for a part that has to be accurate down to a thousandth of an inch, you have to be able to use tools such as a micrometer caliper inch gauge machinist measuring tool.

Although they may have a high school diploma, many people are placing below 12th grade math and reading and in many cases at fourth and fifth grade level. So, that seems to be a big challenge.

Just being in this class puts these students ahead of the crowd. Depending on the class, only half to two-thirds of applicants are accepted –many fail the drug test. Only about 80 percent of the accepted applicants pass the entrance exam.

Rashida Goudeaux ‎is the Director of Workforce Development & Education at Focus: HOPE.

“Although they may have a high school diploma, many people are placing below 12th grade math and reading and in many cases are at fourth and fifth grade levels. So, that seems to be a big challenge,” she explained.

Those who don’t make it, do have the option of basic courses to get up to speed.

Fatima Mixon is a student machinist who got through the entrance exam. She says there was still math waiting for her.

“They teach you, freshen you up on your math skills and make sure you got everything down pat. They make sure you know what you know.”

LG: You sound confident.

“Yes. I am. I like it. I’m very proud of the decision I made to come through.”

Most of these students pay little or nothing to take these classes. But, getting through the application process and passing the entrance exam are just the first couple of hurdles for some Focus: HOPE students. Some are homeless. Some don’t have the appropriate clothes to go to class or to go on a job interview. Some need eyeglasses. Some don’t have a way to get to class. Focus: HOPE either helps directly or works with partners to get students what they need to live and get to class. The idea is you can’t successfully train someone when everything else in their life is working against them.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Fatima Mixon was given bus passes and transfers so she could make it to classes. In Detroit, even that’s something of an obstacle. The bus system is not always reliable.

“Basically, you have to do what you’ve got to do to get where you want to be. And, if that means you’ve got to leave out of the house an extra hour, hour-and-a-half early to do what you’re trying to accomplish, then that’s what you’ve got to do,” Mixon said.

She says she's determined to get that certificate to become a floor machinist. She says, yeah, the machinist training is important, but so are the soft skills. Students learn everything from how to properly shake hands, to working as a team, to getting through a job interview successfully.

“I’ve tried to go out here and just get a job. And usually it’s harder, especially if you don’t have too much work experience by me being sort of a stay-at-home mom, so I have a sketchy work history, but getting the training and, you know, going through the interview process, and they help you with all that type of stuff it helps. It helps,” Mixon said.

Rows of mills and lathes that students use at Focus: HOPE.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

We decided to follow Fatima Mixon to see how it goes. Tomorrow we’ll talk to her family about her decision to get this training and how it’s affected their lives.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.