Nedra Smith has dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon one day.
The 34-year-old Detroit woman said she never pursued the career because she couldn’t afford the cost of schooling.
But a free job training program rolled out by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration last year has given Smith hope. Smith graduated from Detroit At Work’s health care program in the fall and is now a patient care technician at St. John Hospital in Detroit.
“If you wanted a job and had the time to train, they teach you from scratch,” said Smith, who was previously a housekeeper at Beaumont Hospital. “They prepare you for the workforce.”
Duggan has touted Detroit At Work as the “centerpiece” of his approach to fighting joblessness in the city.
His administration launched the program in February and has so far trained and graduated 500 residents with the majority of them landing full-time jobs. The training fields are in health care, information technology, construction and transportation, retail and hospitality, and manufacturing. Students go through a six- to seven-week training program and have the opportunity to interview for partnering companies with job openings.
Some of Detroit’s largest employers, including Quicken Loans, St. John Providence Health System and Detroit Medical Center, have offered jobs to participants. The city also partnered with Focus:HOPE, Oakland University, and Grand Circus for help with training.
“I am really shocked in the state and really in the country that we haven’t made understandable pathways for people who want to learn new skills and raise their standard of income for their families,” Duggan said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. “It’s really how Donald Trump got elected president. It was the lack of those opportunities.”
Detroit’s unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in May, down from the previous year when it was 9.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More recent data shows the rate was 9.6 percent as of September. When Duggan took office in January 2014, the jobless rate was 17.6 percent.
The goal of Detroit At Work is to get 40,000 more city residents back to work in the next five years, said Jeff Donofrio, executive director of the mayor’s Workforce Development Team.
Donofrio said Detroit lags behind other major cities, such as Atlanta, Cleveland and Philadelphia, with its employment numbers. He said the biggest problem is there are too many barriers that keep Detroiters out of the workforce.
Among the challenges are suspended driver’s licenses from unpaid fees, criminal records and difficulty getting certification of their high school diploma from the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Duggan said many residents also struggle with access to bus service or can’t afford car insurance in Detroit.
Detroit At Work is working to eliminate those challenges, officials say.
For example, Donofrio said he is working with lawmakers to get driver’s responsibility fees waived for students who complete so many hours with Detroit At Work. Participants say they have received bus tickets, gas cards and help to find housing from Detroit At Work.
Additionally, students learn professionalism such as how to dress, talk and use mannerisms on the job.
“If they are trying to take proactive steps to get back into workforce we can help them remove this barrier for employment,” Donofrio said.
Detroit At Work directors say they will accept residents with all levels of experience and academic achievement.
Some students in the health care program say they appreciate Detroit At Work for the hands-on experience it offers.
On a recent morning, student Shalynn McKinney was at St. John Hospital in Detroit taking the temperature and blood pressure of a patient who was set to get discharged that day.
“We just wanna make sure you’re OK before you go out,” McKinney said to the patient.
McKinney, an aspiring nurse, said she has learned about basic patient care, grooming and different diseases through the program. The 46-year-old Detroit mom said she felt well-prepared to handle patients once she finished her classes and started clinicals at the hospital.
“Nursing is something I felt like I was called to do,” McKinney said. “I just really appreciate being able to help people that can’t help themselves.”
Duggan commends Detroit At Work for attracting major employers but says there is room for improvement.
He wants to see the city promote the program better with television ads and billboards.
“The goal in 2018 is we are going to break through,” Duggan said. “We haven’t made Detroiters conscious enough of what the opportunities are.”