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Revving up for Detroit’s economic rebound


​The Wayne County Community College District provides training for surgical technicians.

Photo: WCCCD

Detroit may be embroiled in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history following decades of job and population decline, yet there’s lots of economic growth going on and the Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) is playing a huge role in that transformation. 

“When economic times get tough, community colleges do much more because we have to,” said Shawna Forbes, vice chancellor for WCCCD's School of Continuing Education and Workforce Development. 

Despite the gloomy picture in the media, there are plenty of positive things going on in Detroit, including significant infrastructure improvements and new economic development requiring workers with technical skills.

At WCCCD, there’s a strong push to make sure people have the ability to move forward. And enrollment has remained pretty stable in recent years, while the number of people who earned an associate degree to certificate increased from 2,800 in 2012 to 3,200 in 2013. 

Partners in workforce development

WCCCD works with the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which provides economic development tools and other assistance to business that want to expand or relocate to Detroit. Many of these manufacturing companies want employees with associate degrees, said Malinda Jensen, director of business development at the corporation, so it works with Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. (DESC), the local workforce agency, which connects businesses with WCCCD and other colleges that can provide training.

For example, WCCCD worked with DESC to screen 200 people and select 100 of them to take part in a full-time, 19-week, project-oriented job training program that includes internships with local companies.

“We’re looking at quickly moving people along a career pathway,” said WCCCD Vice Chancellor George Swan. “People are not going to get a certificate and that’s it. They have to continually seek to improve their credentials and experiences and be prepared to move in other directions.”

Swan represents the college on the DESC strategic planning committee and the executive committee of Detroit Future City, which has a strategic framework to revitalize the city through economic development, revising land-use policies, improving the infrastructure, stabilizing neighborhoods, improving the quality of life and making better use of public assets.

WCCCD is “incredibly important in job growth,” and the planning and implementation of the strategic plan is clearly informed by the role the college can play, said Dan Kinkead, director of Detroit Future City.  WCCCD “is instrumental in moving the city forward.”

Preparing for health data

According to Swan, advanced manufacturing, information technology and health data management are significant areas of growth in the Detroit region, so the college is stepping up its programs in these areas. WCCCD’s program on health information systems covers analysis, validation, coding, security, measurement and control of health care data, including the conversion from a paper-based system to a digital system to a database system, he said.

The college’s Northwest Campus has a new science center specializing in health information technology (HIT) that provides training for several occupations, including surgical technicians, dental assistants, phlebotomy technicians and nurses. The center also offers health exams to community residents.

In January, the college will launch new associate degree and certificate programs in HIT, database administration and bio-medical equipment repair technology.  

Training for the new IT

Last year, WCCCD worked with global consulting company Infosys to bring offshore jobs back to the U.S., as part of an effort linked to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Obama administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative.

The college also worked with Infosys, Compuware, Quicken and other companies to put together a fast-track “IT boot camp” to train people for jobs with those companies.

The program focused on people who worked in office automation or technology in the automobile industry and had been displaced or had worked with older computer systems and now need to upgrade their skills to qualify for new jobs.

WCCCD also provides training to seasoned IT professionals in new computer systems through the Shifting Code initiative, which is supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Another local initiative, “IT in the D,” aims to develop talent and bring greater economic vitality to the region.

The college has a relatively new cybersecurity program developed with the Cyber Aces Foundation, the U.S.  Department of Homeland Security, the local Veterans Affairs office and Eastern Michigan University, Swan said. A new cyber center will open this winter.

Rebirth of manufacturing

Last year, WCCCD launched a program in advanced manufacturing, Right Skills Now, in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, ACT, the Manufacturing Institute, the Michigan Association of Manufacturers and local employers.

Students earn at least four certifications in metalworking and can then earn more certificates for operating more advanced equipment. Employers not only serve as advisors but provide work experience for students who go through a fast-track program.

Students learn to work with various composite materials, as well as computer-control automation. They learn reverse engineering, using a ferro arm to pinpoint 10,000 areas on an object and plot it digitally — an important step in disassembling a prototype, taking measurements and recreating it for mass production.

Two cohorts, each with 26 students, have completed the program. All are employed, except for two graduates who are continuing their education. The third cohort starts in January.

According to WCCCD Chancellor Curtis Ivery, the college is also gearing up for training people to work on a new light rail line that will link downtown Detroit to Pontiac, Mich. Construction on the highly automated, computer-based system is expected to start this spring, and there will be jobs for people trained in electromechanical systems, as well as signaling and communications systems.

New bus and shuttle systems will be linked with the light rail line, and a new high-speed rapid bus system, running in dedicated lanes, will link Detroit to Jackson, Mich. Two cohorts of 30 students each are in a WCCCD program on the operation and maintenance of these systems.

Leveraging local resources

When it comes to economic revitalization, Detroit has some key advantages: It has the largest inland port for international trade and a global distribution network that’s a legacy of the auto industry, Kinkead said.

There’s also been growth in recent years in companies involved with manufacturing, logistics and food and beverage processing. And when Quicken Loans moved to downtown Detroit in 2010, it brought thousands of jobs and sparked growth in other companies.

But one of the key challenges is producing a skilled workforce that can meet companies’ needs.

“That’s where WCCCD can play a very big role,” Kinkead said.

Only about half of the population age 25-64 is part of the “active labor force,” Kinkead said, and 20 percent of city residents don’t have a high school diploma. Meanwhile, 61 percent of city residents who work commute to jobs outside the city, while 70 percent of jobs in the city go people who live in the suburbs.

What’s needed is training for city residents “tied to meaningful employment that provides a living wage,” he said. “WCCCD can do that.”