Training program gives woman boost in post-industrial Detroit

November 1, 2012

Sarah Cwiek

(Michael Daines/Flickr)
Henry Ford Community College

It’s hard to catch up with Jackie Buentello. She’s busy working as a field coordinator for DTE, an energy provider in Detroit. She works a long day in this warehouse just south of Detroit. She proudly says that she is responsible for 19 crews that go into about 150 homes a day to assess energy and install energy-efficient products.

She’s waiting for them to come back and check in for the night. She tells me that she just got a promotion today. Jackie’s been working here for about two years. She started as an installer on one of the crews she supervises, for $11 an hour. Now, she’s almost upper management. And she’s only 25.i

But Jackie’s path to this point has been far from easy.

The costs of a loosing a loved one

Detroit used to define the American Dream. Industrial prowess created plenty of jobs and mass prosperity. The rise of organized labor helped assure that prosperity was shared with workers, even the unskilled. But things have changed drastically, in the American economy and especially in Detroit.

Jackie’s father had a vastly different experience than she has. Pictures of her family are tacked up all over her cubicle. The biggest picture is of her late father, Raul. He was a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools for 20 years, and Jackie says he “wasn’t just a regular guy.”

“He read the dictionary for fun. There was never an excuse why you couldn’t do something,” Jackie recalled.

She grew up in southwest Detroit, a traditionally industrial, working-class neighborhood. It’s still a strong, tight-knit community but crime, blight, and a growing sense of hopelessness have taken root there.

Jackie is the oldest of four kids. She and her family got by when she was growing up. Jackie’s mom, Carmen, didn’t finish high school, but she got her GED and eventually a degree in social work.

Jackie had just started college when Raul was diagnosed with cancer. He deteriorated quickly.

“This big strong guy, who used to lift weights just kind of got knocked down,” she said, “And it’s like, how could you have been so tough and something…just knocks you down so quick.”

The family was devastated when Raul died. Both emotionally, and economically.

“He had been through all this testing, treatments and everything…and insurance wasn’t covering it, we were using everything. My mom was on vacation taking care of him with Family Medical Leave Act, and when she got back they fired her ‘cause she hadn’t met her numbers. So then we really had no money,” Jackie said.

There were all kinds of debts they hadn’t even known about. They almost lost their house. With the help of extended family, they paid off just enough bills to stay afloat. But it took a big toll on everyone, especially on Jackie. She dropped out of college and was working two restaurant jobs to support herself and the family. She worked briefly in health care, taking care of elderly and disabled patients. But the pay was low, and the emotional toll high. She wanted more.

And then she got laid off.

A promising new beginning 

Jackie has a good work ethic and doesn’t mind working long hours or multiple jobs. So, it was unsettling for her to not have a job.

She got depressed. Her mom was worried and searching for ways to keep Jackie busy. She found a free, four-month training program in renewable energy technologies at a southwest Detroit non-profit. Jackie signed up, and at first, wasn’t thrilled. She felt out of place because she was the only girl.

“The instructor said, ‘You might as well just leave, because all the other girls have, because they couldn’t handle shop class,” Jackie recalled.

She took the challenge. Jackie got some positive feedback and she liked what she was learning, so she kept at it.

Still, she wasn’t sure if she could make it in this technical field. But at her graduation ceremony, she found out she’d been awarded a scholarship to Henry Ford Community College.

The Michigan Technical Education Center is a part of Henry Ford Community College. It’s just down the road from Ford Motor Company’s massive Rouge industrial complex. And that’s where the Henry Ford Trade School used to stand.

Henry Ford founded the school to give needy boys an opportunity to learn a trade. The story of one such boy is told in a glass display case in the lobby, through black-and-white pictures and anecdotes about his daily life as a student in the late 1930s. It was a model of business investment in social mobility—and its own future workforce.

Gary Saganski is the director of corporate training and skilled trades at Henry Ford Community College. Saganski is trying to help re-build a pipeline that has broken down—one that matches workers’ skills with what employers are demanding.

He says their goal is to have people develop themselves personally, educationally and technologically

“To be able to make a real kind of contribution to the economy and to their community,” he said.

In another era, those skills were honed at trade schools and during union apprenticeships.

But Reginald Witherspoon, who works with Saganski, says with those opportunities gone it’s now a tremendous challenge. In a global marketplace where quick turnaround is key, businesses want employees to walk in the door with skills in hand. They don’t want to train them. So, for the people who want to gain those skills and still get by in the meantime, it can add up to a cruel catch-22.

Witherspoon says sometimes people have to choose between having a paycheck so they can pay for necessities like heat during the winter instead of training opportunities that don’t pay.

The economy and the workplace have changed drastically in the past 30 years or so—but our social and educational systems have lagged far behind. In Detroit, that’s added up to a devastating lack of job skills--and an economic situation where nearly one in two people is neither holding a job, nor even looking for one.

Both Witherspoon and Saganski are hopeful—that community colleges and other local institutions--like the non-profit that helped train Jackie-- can help rebuild that employment pipeline. And they say if you look closely, you can see people who are making it.

Adjusting expectations

It certainly seems like Jackie is one of those people. Back at the warehouse, she’s checking her crews back in after a long day.

Almost all Jackie’s crew members are older than her, some at least twice her age. Most of them are men. In fact, one of the guys she now supervises trained her when she first started out as an installer, just two years ago.

But if there are any huge issues with the 25-year-old, with a long brown ponytail and a stud through her right eyebrow--being in charge, they’re not too obvious.

Jackie says they’re a motley crew--a group of people who, like almost everybody else, are trying to find their footing in this weird new economy. Working next to Jackie is a chemical engineer, a high school drop out, and a GED recipient who all went through the same program she did.

“There are people who were getting paid six figures in their old jobs. Those are the people working for us and everybody is...fine with it,” Jackie added.

They all work 12-hour shifts, at least five days a week. But at the end of the day, they find time to share stories and crack jokes.

Jackie says for now, she’s fine with working this hard. She’s thrilled to have built a career so quickly. She feels like she’s going somewhere--and she hasn’t always felt that way. But she’s finally earned enough to buy a house.

That’s a big deal, because Jackie has always wanted her own house. And it’s just a few blocks from the house where she grew up in southwest Detroit.

Having your own home has always been a cornerstone of the American dream. And Jackie thinks she’s on the way to achieving hers—even if it’s not quite the white picket fence version.