Detroit sees training opportunity before expected job boom

DETROIT (AP) – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) this week announced a USD4.5 billion investment that would bring 6,500 new manufacturing jobs to Detroit and its suburbs and, nearly two years before the first new vehicles will even roll off the line, the city already is taking steps to ensure it can provide enough workers with the needed skills.

Detroit’s economy was once dominated by automotive manufacturing, but since the industry’s gradual migration from the metro area it has suffered among the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country. Not long ago, Detroit was struggling to provide basic services, culminating in bankruptcy in 2013. Providing job training then would have been a tall order.

But in its recovery, the city has overhauled its training programmes and slowly built a track record for preparing people for specific jobs.

“We’re not starting from scratch,” Jeff Donofrio, the city’s executive director of workforce development, said on Wednesday, a day after the Italian-American automaker announced its plan. “We want to make sure we’re prepared for all the … jobs that will come to the city as a result of the investments.”

The city works with two high schools, a community college and a workforce development organisation, in partnerships with the auto union and companies, to tailor training programmes for positions in manufacturing, construction, information technology and health care.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announces plans for Fiat Chrysler to build a new assembly plant during a news conference. – AP

Detroit worked closely with global auto parts supplier Flex-N-Gate to ensure Detroiters were handed jobs when the company last year opened a plant in what officials described as the largest investment in the city in two decades. The city and company developed customised training with the non-profit Focus: Hope, which prioritises workforce development and education.

“About 250 individuals went through that training and a vast majority were hired by Flex-N-Gate,” Donofrio said.

With tax breaks and land acquisitions still to be hammered out, Fiat Chrysler’s specific workforce needs have yet to be revealed. But Donofrio insists that the city has a growing force of eligible workers: Detroit last year enrolled about 2,500 people in training leading to a credential for a specific job, up from about 700 two years earlier.

Some prospective FCA jobs could be offered to laid-off Fiat Chrysler workers or those already working for the company on a temporary basis, and United Auto Workers officials say many of them are already in Detroit.

Fiat Chrysler said it will invest USD1.6 billion to reopen a shuttered engine plant and convert another in the same complex into an assembly plant for the Jeep Grand Cherokee and a new, three-row, full-size Jeep SUV. That would create about 3,850 jobs.

All told, the investment would roughly double FCA’s hourly workforce in Detroit.