Detroit's Climb to High Employment Is Steep

As host of the G-7 Jobs Conference, the country's seventh largest city demonstrated dangers of chronic joblessness

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DURING the Group of Seven's conference on jobs, which ended March 15, President Clinton hailed host city Detroit for ``embracing changes'' that are painful but vital to higher employment and global competitiveness.

But G-7 officials who stepped out of their tinted-glass hotels and windowless meeting hall would have discovered that Detroit is not a paragon for a tidy, high-tech metropolis. Rather, they would have found it scarred by shuttered department stores and ramshackle houses.

Although Mr. Clinton held up Detroit as a model for the national goal of moving toward full employment with cutting-edge enterprises, the city's deep-rooted problems likely illustrated the opposite to G-7 ministers - indeed, the profound dangers of chronic joblessness. More than 13 percent of the labor force in Detroit is unemployed; one-third of its population lives in poverty.

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``If you look at statistics, if you look at the tax base, if you look at foreclosures and bankruptcies downtown, if you look at the awful conditions in the neighborhoods, it is too early to say there is a change,'' says Bettie Buss, a senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Social scientists and public policy experts say the seventh largest city in the United States must advance high-tech retraining programs and other areas if it is to curtail unemployment, crime, and poverty.

Last November, Detroit made its most decisive motion for change in many years by electing a mayor - Dennis Archer - who seeks to end some 20 years of conflict over class and race between the city and its suburbs. ``There is certainly a great deal more enthusiasm now than before. There is a spirit of inclusiveness and a desire to work together,'' Ms. Buss says.

Clinton chose Detroit for the jobs conference largely for economic reasons that have little to do with the city itself. In recent years, US auto companies have rebounded by improving quality and productivity to meet global competition.

After investing $80 billion in new plants, equipment, and technology since 1988, last year the ``Big Three'' sold more than 10 million cars and pried away 1.5 percent of the domestic market from foreign rivals. The firms have spent $4.5 billion in job training in the past decade.

But Detroit cannot count on the auto industry to pull it out of the doldrums. It has only two large auto manufacturing plants today and few prospects of attracting more.

``The city really can't look to the auto industry for manufacturing jobs,'' says Larry Ledebur, director at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Like many modern manufacturers, automakers today generally spurn cramped factory sites in cities, instead building sprawling factories in suburbs adjacent to major transportation arteries, he says.

Although General Motors Corporation still maintains its headquarters in Detroit, the city has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the auto industry since 1970. ``There is the auto industry and there is Detroit, and I'm not sure they are the same things any more,'' says Kurt Metzger, director of the Michigan Metropolitan Information Center.

Ironically, one out of three Detroit natives does not have a private automobile, according to city estimates.

Moreover, the Metropolitan Affairs Corporation, a regional body representing labor, business, and government officials, considers the lack of transportation, both public and private, as the city's No. 1 problem.

In his opening speech March 14, Clinton extolled ``Automation Alley,'' a 40-mile-long corridor between Ann Arbor, Mich., and Detroit as the country's fastest growing area for technology. For Detroiters of modest means, however, Automation Alley is too long a daily commute.

Mayor Archer says he is eager to merge the city and suburban bus lines in order to enable Detroiters to commute to the suburbs, where most of the new job opportunities are located.

Archer has inherited an $88.5 million budget deficit that hampers him from luring jobs and investment from the suburbs back into Detroit, however. Analysts say he will find it difficult to fulfill his promise of making Detroit clean and safe while cutting the city's deficit.

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