Creating a path to middle-class wage jobs for DetroitersInnovative training programs, job placement, and broadening requirements

This story is part of the series Exploring Economic Equity, supported and directed by Detroit Future City. This Model D and Metromode series aims to report everyday Detroiters and their experiences as they live their lives and make choices about their neighborhoods, health, education, jobs, transportation, and other factors related to economic equity. All content in this series is created in partnership with Detroit Future City.
Edward "Eddie" Lewis, has always believed that dreams can come true. The 28-year-old, who was born and raised in Detroit, has a few. And for the first time, he feels that he actually has a solid way of achieving them. Just this November, Lewis landed a job that propelled him into the middle-class income bracket. 

"Today, I'm making $60,000, but let's go six figures, let's own a company one day," Lewis says. "Now that I'm hitting this new flex I can do more and things don't feel like just a poster on my wall. Now I have a plan and a pathway to actually get the life I want."

Late last year, Lewis was feeling frustrated about the lack of work hours at his security job. His aunt told him about Focus: HOPE, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that has been on a mission to eradicate racism, poverty, and injustice since it first opened its doors in 1968. 

Part of how Focus: Hope achieves its goal is by providing innovative training programs and job placements to move participants into higher-paying jobs. Lewis graduated from Focus: HOPE's Server Tech Pilot program this past February. He was initially placed at the computer consulting company Stefanini at $14 an hour. After a few months and a bit more experience, Focus: Hope placed him with Percepta, a global customer experience firm, at an increased hourly wage. 

Edward "Eddie" Lewis. Photo by Nick Hagen.

He recently interviewed with a new company, Nerd Xpress, headquartered in Detroit. When asked what he believed was a fair salary, his answer was $60,000 annually. Nerd Xpress extended an offer letter that same day.

"It's been a little wild, going from $20,000 a year at Percepta, which is essentially no money, to tripling that income and becoming salaried," Lewis says. "I no longer feel like I'm behind the eight ball. I can live a good life, maybe have a family and even build my own house in Detroit."

While Lewis' story is remarkable, experts say that it is too rare. A recent report by Detroit Future City (DFC) has found that residents – and in particular African-Americans, who have an unemployment rate 1.5 times that of white people – do not have a clear path to accessing middle-class wage jobs in the city. 

Released in May, the nonprofit think tank's report, The State of Economic Equity in Detroit, which was informed by nearly 500 Detroit stakeholders, revealed some interesting data about access to quality employment. While 35% of jobs in the city are middle-wage jobs, over the past decade, middle-wage jobs were the slowest growing segment of Detroit’s economy, growing only 3%, compared to 14% in the U.S. and 23% in the region. 

Edward Lynch, senior program manager for the Center for Equity, Engagement and Research at Detroit Future City (DFC) and one of the report's authors, explains that if you asked 10 people to define "middle class", you would get 13 different answers. 

"For us, at this time, it's between 80% and 200% of the national median income, and what that roughly comes down to is about $50,000 on the bottom end and about $130,000 on the top end per year," he says. "But, right now that is simply out of reach for most Detroiters."

Edward Lynch. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Lynch's colleague and director at the Center, Ashley Williams Clark, points to education as a major barrier to growing the middle class. She says that jobs in Detroit can be put into three groups: low-wage jobs, middle-wage jobs, and bachelor’s degree jobs, which are jobs that are held by somebody with a bachelor's degree or higher. 

"We're seeing a clear increase in the lower-wage jobs and not a big increase in the middle-wage jobs. If we're only increasing low-paying jobs then people are going to stay low income," Clark says. "Also, slightly over 80% of Detroit's population doesn't have a bachelor's degree and we don't believe that should be a factor that prevents people from entering the middle class."

Clark adds that DFC's standpoint is that economic equity in Detroit means that every Detroiter is getting their needs met in order to prosper. Recognizing that income is a core driver of so many pieces that contribute to economic equity, access to middle-wage jobs must increase. 

Lewis, who chose to go to culinary school after high school, wholeheartedly agrees. He says that until recently, he had no clear, tangible way to enter the middle class. 

"All you're told is to finish high school, go to college and get a degree, and then get a good job and make something of yourself," he says. "But, for me, that wasn't the path I chose, and for many people college simply isn't an option." 

Broadening requirements

Standard ways of doing business too often keep Detroiters from accessing middle-income wage jobs, according to Sonia Harb, vice-chair of the board for the Michigan League of Public Policy and an engagement strategist for the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Requiring applicants to have a degree is often a big barrier. She says that what's needed is less attention on terminal degrees and more attention placed on competencies.

"If employers would look to the skill sets required for a job and then assess if people had the skills to operate that job it would open up the playing field and also the candidate pool," she says. "A lot of skills are transferable, and there are a lot of jobs out there that require a bachelor’s degree or three years of college, but it's not necessary to do the job well."

Through the university's school of social work, Harb convenes a group called the Employment Equity Learning and Action Collaborative (EELAC), an effort that is centered on promoting employment equity and opportunity for Detroiters through systems changes. At EELAC's table are over 60 organizations representing multiple sectors. Supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the initiative was launched three years ago. 

Ashley Clark. Photo by Nick Hagen..
Harb says that since then one of the things that members have been examining are the conditions that have "led to the status quo, and where we find ourselves today with the extreme educational disparities between Detroiters and non-Detroiters, and Black people in Detroit versus non-Black people in Detroit."

The collective has coined the social determinants of employment equity model, following the same principles of the better-known social determinants of health model. They say that in order to create the conditions that would lead to employment equity for Detroiters, action must be taken to address many facets of society, and impact must be made across multiple systems.

"We have to make sure that K-12 education is strong and that students coming out of the system are well prepared. High-quality employment training programs and occupational training must be available," she says. 

Transportation and job access

"We also have to make sure that the civic infrastructure is strong, there's quality child care, and that the transportation system is getting people to and from work effectively," Harb adds.

DFC's Lynch underscores the role transportation barriers play as another impediment to Detroiters’ access to employment. 

"What we know from our research is that a substantial amount of people come into the city to work and a substantial amount of people are traveling out of the city to go to work," he says. "That's not uncommon in cities like Detroit, but in this region, public transportation might not be able to easily get people to where they need to go and that really limits people's opportunities for accessing jobs."

Assistance with transportation costs was a huge help in getting Lewis through Focus: Hope's training program. He enrolled in the program with two friends and they all worked night shifts. Both time and money were tight.

"We'd often finish our night shifts, drive together to the Focus: Hope parking lot, and then sleep in the car from 7 a.m. and wake up to start class at 8:15 a.m.," he says. "The whole time, Focus: Hope gave me gas vouchers, and whenever I couldn't pick up a friend they made sure his bus costs were covered."

A holistic approach

Jewel Chapman, director of Focus: Hope's workplace development and education department, says that Lewis is one of about 15,000 people that her organization has proudly served across a number of different training programs. She explains that taking a holistic approach in assisting participants (most who don't have to pay for the training) has always been their way.

"When someone like Eddie comes in, we ask what kind of challenges they're facing and then we help them, not necessarily by fixing it, but by putting them in a position to correct it," Chapman says. "Whether they need eyeglasses or help to connect with a group like the Michigan Rehabilitation Services, we work to remove all the barriers that prevent successful completion of training."

Jewel Chapman. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Typically, her organization serves 500 to 1000 people a year. While Focus: Hope has had moments where they've grappled with the bandwidth of some of their programs, they've been working to not turn anyone away. Interestingly, the pandemic has provided a silver lining for them.

"Now that we've developed some virtual training opportunities we haven't had to turn anyone away due to our operations during the pandemic," she says. "That means that we can continue to crank out more folks like Eddie and give more Detroiters the opportunity to earn a middle-class income." 

As for Lewis, he contends that there are many Detroiters like him waiting for help opening the door to the middle class. 

"I'm pretty much the teeniest example of what could be a whole influx of talented people who could do great things to spearhead Detroit forward," he says. "We're out there just waiting for the opportunity."