Video: Detroit retools its workforce

By Roland Jones
msnbc.com
updated 3/25/2009 1:25:20 PM ET 2009-03-25T17:25:20

Gerald Crouterfield believes in the power of prayer, and good fortune.

Last September, the 40-year-old former automotive parts worker from Standish, Mich., was laid off from his job at auto parts supplier Tubular Metal Systems, where he built turbo pipes for GMC’s hulking Duramax diesel truck. Seeking a new direction, he attended a local job fair and connected with “No Worker Left Behind,” a state program to retrain unemployed workers.

By October, the organization had arranged and paid for Crouterfield to enroll at Delta College, a community college in nearby Saginaw, Mich., in an accelerated five-month program to train for a new career in the chemicals industry. He graduated in February and begins work at Dow Chemical in April.

“At first, when I lost my job, I was upset because I had worked in the auto industry for 19 years, but when I got into the training I saw a brighter future,” Crouterfield said. “I was lucky, but I prayed about this too, and a door was opened for me.”

These days, Michigan’s manufacturing workers need a dose of good luck. As the automotive industry has fallen apart amid a severe drop in global demand, the Big Three U.S. automakers that still dominate the state are shedding workers and shuttering plants at a furious pace.

Michigan, with its 11.6 percent unemployment rate now the highest in the nation, could hardly be a less inviting place for thethousands of former autoworkers now looking for new jobs.

The state’s manufacturing sector is contracting sharply. Over the last decade, the number of jobs in the sector has shrunk from a peak of 910,200 in July 1999 to a low of 490,700 in January this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — a drop of 46 percent. But with its long experience in retraining manufacturing employees, Michigan also offers lessons in how to help midcareer workers reinvent their careers.

“I really think we have a lesson to teach,” said Andy Levin, deputy director of Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth. “Our program places a huge emphasis on training workers to change their lives instead of just finding a new job. In order for Michigan to prosper we have to upscale our work force in a big way, and we are completely reinventing our adult training.”

Launched in August 2007, Michigan’s “No Worker Left Behind” free-tuition program has put 61,434 unemployed workers, many of them from the automotive industry, through accredited programs to accelerate their transition to new industries. Each worker receives up to $10,000 to pay for training at an approved training program or institution, as long as they train for work in in-demand sectors like health care or “green-collar” industries.

The classes that propelled Crouterfield into a new career were paid for by the program, and Levin holds it up as a success story in the state’s attempt to retrain its growing pool of jobless manufacturing workers.

Crouterfield attended the Pre-Chemical Process Operator “Fast Start” Program, originally developed to train Dow Chemical workers. Former auto industry workers who have gone through the program also have found jobs at Dow Chemical, and also at Hemlock Semiconductor, which makes the silicon used in computer chips and solar panels and has invested $1 billion locally. Hemlock, Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, which also specializes in silicon-based technology, expect to make over 100 new hires in the region each year for the next five years.

All but six of the program’s 17 recent graduates are now starting jobs paying between $13 and $20 an hour plus benefits. Some of the graduates had more than one job offer. More than 150 have added their name to list of those interested in the next “Fast Start” Program, which begins in April. A maximum of 24 will be selected.

“The reason this program is successful is we’re filing a skills gap,” said Patricia Graves, director of business partnerships at Delta. “Only 18 percent of workers in this part of Michigan have a bachelor’s college degree, and that’s well below the state and national average. These jobs demand a high level of math, technology and science skills — these are the skill sets for the 21st century green-collar jobs, and they’re not the skills that were required when these autoworkers first began their careers.”

Graves says courses such as this represent a great opportunity for autoworkers and for the state to diversify its economy.

“We have been heavily auto-based, and that was a great industry for us for many years, but now we have to diversify and the green industry presents one way for us to diversify. It shouldn’t be the sole option, but it’s a good one,” she said.

While some workers will be fortunate enough to find work, the green revolution is not likely to save Michigan’s manufacturing base, said Donald R. Grimes, an employment expert at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy.

While the growth of the green sector should be applauded for creating a more responsible and clean future, he reckons the number of factory jobs in the green sector will end up being relatively small, and they’ll pay less than the auto sector jobs the workers leave behind.

“It’s ironic that everyone’s pushing these green-collar jobs when the truth is they tend to pay much less that the old industrial manufacturing jobs,” he said. “It raises the question of why these autoworkers didn’t just take a pay cut in their old jobs. Maybe they could have saved their industry.”

Industries that are likely to see stronger growth in future years include health care, biosciences and information technology, said Grimes. Given the aging boomer generation, health care is likely to see particularly strong growth, he said, predicting a need for nursing assistants, physical therapists and all sorts of health care technicians.

“I think that anything related to the aging population should be top of the list when it comes to retraining people in Michigan,” Grimes said. “Our state’s population is aging faster than most because we have a disproportionate number of baby boomers and we don’t have many immigrants and more young people are moving out of the state.”

However, Grimes isn’t optimistic about the outlook for Michigan’s manufacturing sector, and he thinks the state was a few years late in retraining its manufacturing work force away from the autos industry.

“Four or five years ago it was clear that the downturn we’re seeing in the autos industry wasn’t cyclical but systemic and many in the industry would lose their jobs,” he said. “Now people are adapting and moving to new careers, but while it’s good that they have new jobs the ones they’re moving to are much lower paid than the unionized jobs they had before.”

“The number of manufacturing jobs will decline over time,” Grimes continued. “I think they will be quickly replaced with machines. In the Western world, the idea that we need lots of people making things is outdated. I think manufacturing will go the way of farming — it will shrink and will become more mechanized.”

That’s a dour prognosis for former autoworkers like Crouterfield. President Barack Obama has pledged to help the ailing U.S. auto industry back on to its feet, but most observers agree that the auto industry that emerges from the current downturn will be a severely downsized version of the Detroit of yesteryear.

“At Tubular Metal, I was running equipment and making a single part every day, but my new jobs won’t be quite so exact, and so to transfer those skills took some studying,” Crouterfield said. “I had to support myself through the course with unemployment money and no health insurance. You just do it, but it’s worth it in the end.”

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