Feb. 18 (Bloomberg)-- The predawn buses that Detroiter Greg Rich rode 20 miles to a suburban auto-parts plant were late so often he was fired in January.
The 27-year-old high-school graduate has no car and spent a year job-hunting before he took the $7.40-an-hour position that lasted only seven months. He said Detroit has no jobs for him and those in suburbs are unreachable.
“I’m very frustrated,” Rich said in a phone interview during another day of searching the Internet for employment. “The jobs now aren’t even in Michigan. I’m looking for work in Atlanta. I have friends in Colorado who tell me, ‘You’ve got to move. There’s nothing there.’”
Detroit had the lowest rate of adults working or looking for employment in a 2012 federal survey. Merely getting to a job when it exists can be an insurmountable challenge in community built for cars whose footprint is big enough to encompass Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan. Twenty-six percent of the households in the insolvent former capital of auto manufacturing lacked a vehicle, compared with 9 percent nationally, according to a 2013 study by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Transportation Research Institute.
“Everything starts with a job,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a phone interview. “We need jobs in the city and we need to be able to transport people to where the jobs are.”
As Detroit endures the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy and struggles to provide basic services, unemployment erodes its economic foundation by feeding blight, poverty and crime, Duggan said.
Only 49.4 percent of Detroit’s adults ages 16 and above were employed or job-hunting in 2012 -- the lowest workforce participation rate among 41 U.S. cities examined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average was 63.7 percent.
The city’s average unemployment last year was 17 percent, almost twice the state rate, and 38 percent of households live below the poverty level.
Increasingly, citizens of the one-time manufacturing giant must look for blue-collar jobs outside the city, while office workers make the opposite trek.
Among employed residents, 62 percent worked outside Detroit in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among U.S. cities of 500,000 to 900,000 residents, only Las Vegas had a higher percentage of working residents who commuted elsewhere.
“That’s where the need for public transportation comes in,” said Jeff Bross, project manager for Data Driven Detroit, a non-profit that provides statistics to help policy makers. “We are definitely an auto-dependent region.”
Buses are Detroit’s only mass transportation and they’re often late thanks to an aging, broken fleet. Riders have difficulty connecting with suburban buses, Duggan said. Efforts to merge the city and suburban bus systems have been mired for years in political disputes, which a new regional transit authority is seeking to overcome.
Lack of reliable transportation discourages many job-seekers, said Rhonda Willis, a Detroit human-resources consultant. She’s searched for a year for a full-time job, even with a car.
“The fact that we don’t have a better public transportation system has significantly added to the burden of unemployment within the city of Detroit,” said Willis, 48, who’s recruited and tested job applicants for auto companies, lawyers, health care providers and arts organizations.
It’s difficult to find candidates for lower-level jobs such as cashiers and janitorial workers, Willis said. She said she’s seen many Detroiters disqualified for lack of skills, failed drug tests, bad credit or criminal records.
An example is Rich’s brother, Dyrelle Snead, 22, who said employers are repelled by his 2012 felony for illegally carrying a gun and his subsequent probation.
Two employers told him his record wouldn’t be a problem, “but they didn’t call me back,” said Snead in an interview at a state unemployment office.
Snead, who’s a high-school graduate, uses his 1998 Ford Crown Victoria and employment websites to search for work.
“I like plant work, and plant jobs are outside of the city,” he said.
White-collar jobs are growing in the seven square miles (18 square kilometers) around downtown Detroit. The business district added about 10,000 jobs since 2010 for such large employers as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan and Quicken Loans Inc., according to a 2013 report by the Detroit-based Hudson-Webber Foundation.
Jobs in Detroit in engineering, information technology and health care are hard to fill, said Pamela Moore, president and chief executive of Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., a nonprofit that connects people with jobs. The work force needs better education and job-training, she said.
Detroit job postings on Monster.com, an Internet job search site, increased 10 percent in the last quarter of 2013 compared with the previous year, especially for engineering, information technology, management and finance. The website ranks Detroit 16th among 20 U.S. cities in available jobs, according to New York-based parent company Monster Worldwide Inc.
A Detroit supermarket opened in July by Grand Rapids-based Meijer Inc. hired 500 from 1,500 prescreened applicants, said Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman.
Those gains push against a decades-long tide of blight and population loss that eroded the tax base. Detroit lost 78 percent of its retail businesses and 80 percent of its manufacturing base from 1972 to 2007 -- before the 18-month recession that began in December 2007 -- according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public-policy nonprofit organization.
The three auto assembly plants remaining in Detroit employ 6,184 workers, 4,435 of them at Chrysler’s Jefferson North plant.
After World War II, new suburban factories prompted an exodus of residents, manufacturing, finance and services that was unsurpassed among U.S. cities, said George Galster, professor of urban studies at Wayne State University. Detroit’s population fell from a peak of 1.8 million to about 701,500 in 2012.
“The result after 60 years is painfully obvious,” Galster said in a phone interview. “You have a hole in the middle with very few people with disposable income, very few retail and manufacturing jobs, very few any kind of jobs.”
The state and federal governments should grant tax credits to employers who hire Detroit residents, said state Representative Fred Durhal, a Detroit Democrat. He estimates at least half the adults in his House district are unemployed, many on public assistance.
“We’ve got to do more than build new buildings in downtown and midtown,” Durhal said. “We’ve got to find jobs for people who won’t have technical skills.”
Job-seeker Rich said he’s worked in fast food, retail, home health care and manufacturing, mostly outside his city. He’s taken some criminal-justice classes, though he doesn’t want to be a police officer in Detroit.
He’s considering culinary school, something he said appeals to his creative side.
“It would be easier if I had a car,” he said.
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