By John Gallagher | Detroit Free Press Business
Even before the first puck drops in 2016, the planned new home of the Detroit Red Wings could prove a winner by providing several thousand construction jobs specifically for Detroit residents.
But it won’t be easy meeting the agreed-upon goal of giving city residents 51% of more than 5,000 building jobs. That’s because the vast majority of members of local construction trades live in the suburbs, perhaps as many as 95%.
So hitting the target, or at least coming close, has prompted some creative strategies on the part of the city, the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development, and from building contractors and trade unions, such as setting up training programs and advertising in publications to attract city residents to be hired or trained.
Firms that fall short of the goal can pay a fee or make good by offering free training and by providing instructors and equipment, according to the construction agreement between Olympia and the city.
Alex Ivanikiw of Barton Malow, one of the three construction firms hired by Olympia to build the arena, said getting more Detroit residents into the construction trades is important not only for the hiring goal but also to strengthen the industry for years to come.
“I think it’s a necessary goal both for the city of Detroit as well as for the construction industry,” Ivanikiw said. “Here in southeast Michigan, we are very close to reaching full utilization of all union trades.”
The long-term goal of city leaders for decades has been to develop a new economic base for the city, including a roster of construction workers who will keep their high wages and benefits in the city. The arena work has that added benefit as a training ground for workers to tackle other big jobs on the horizon, including the city’s blight removal blitz and the planned New International Trade Crossing bridge project slated to span the river between Detroit and Windsor.
One relative newcomer who may benefit is Simone Cobb, 47, of Detroit, who, with her husband, has recently completed several classes on asbestos removal and lead abatement. The two work as apprentices affiliated with Laborers Local 1191 with a contracting firm called Herco. Cobb called her training classes “awesome” and looks forward to playing a part in Detroit’s recovery.
“They’re telling us that in a couple of weeks we’ll have work coming,” she said. “Everything is coming to Detroit, and we’ll be able to participate in it.”
Moving Detroit forward
With the arena being one of the largest downtown construction projects in years, the Ilitches and city officials are keenly aware of the symbolism and the financial and social benefits to Detroit of hiring actual residents to work on the arena. Many consider the project a key ingredient for moving Detroit forward post-bankruptcy. As well, most recognize the need to upgrade from the decades-old Joe Louis Arena.
The new arena also will be part of a broader 54-block entertainment district designed to remake the troubled Cass Corridor district and ultimately to attract more outside retail dollars.
The residential requirement aside, just finding enough laborers, carpenters, electricians, pipe fitters, and other union trade workers for all the jobs could present its own challenge. A lot of the workers left Michigan during the Great Recession, and the trade workforce is now aging.
“The average age is approaching 50 for an industry that typically is a young man’s industry,” Ivanikiw said.
Bernard White, head of White Construction, one of three building firms hired by Olympia to manage the project, said outreach efforts will include community meetings and advertisements in black-oriented newspapers. In addition, contractors and building trade unions hope to ramp up efforts to train new workers through apprenticeships, mentoring programs, and the like.
Good workers available
Patrick Devlin, secretary treasurer of the Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 20 trade unions including laborers, carpenters and electricians, agreed that the 51% goal can be met if everyone works for it.
“Obviously our contractors have to be committed, and it can’t be just the first-tier contractors,” Devlin said. “Sometimes it becomes problematic for those second- and third-tier subcontractors. But as long as they know what the rules are going in, we do have good Detroit workers.”
Devlin estimated that building-trade unions have about 35,000 members in southeast Michigan, of which about 2,000 live in the city of Detroit.
The Great Recession of a few years ago devastated the construction trades, costing thousands of workers their jobs. The industry has been reviving lately but still has a ways to go. So major projects like the arena, Detroit’s planned blight removal effort, the M-1 streetcar line, and the planned NITC bridge project would all help put people to work.
“Our numbers are still not where they need to be getting those people back to work,” Devlin said. “We’ve got people sitting on the bench right now that are looking for employment. These projects will obviously help with that.”
When Detroiters move
Pamela Moore, president and CEO of of the city’s nonprofit workforce development agency, Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., said many contractors hiring workers for the project will struggle to meet the goal. “The numbers are just not here,” she said.
One issue: When city residents enter a building trade and start to earn a decent wage, they often move to the suburbs. “And so you may start off in the city as an apprentice, and once you get to be a journeyman and you start making a nice wage, you leave,” Moore said.
To counteract that, Moore said, Mayor Mike Duggan‘s administration has begun to think about offering low-interest loans on city-owned houses or other incentives to keep newly trained construction workers in the city.
Phyllis Loudermill, owner of Herco, the firm that hired Cobb and her husband, said the arena project provides an opportunity to develop Detroit’s resident workforce more fully.
“I think there’s enough people in Detroit that can do that (51% goal), but I think there’s a strong need for some retooling and retraining people,” she said. “So I think, yes, it’s a goal that’s going to take some challenges, but it can be done.”