Nicole Sherard-Freeman is a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board. Sherard-Freeman leads the City of Detroit’s economic and workforce development strategy as the newly appointed group executive of jobs, economy, and Detroit at Work. Since 2019, she has built Detroit at Work into a world-class staffing organization, supplying talent to local employers and solving the complex job and career readiness needs of local residents by leveraging Detroit’s network of service providers. In her new role as group executive, she will unify and align Detroit’s economic and workforce development efforts to attract major employers and provide them with a seamless process for locating to Detroit and finding qualified talent to build their workforce.
Before her current role, Sherard-Freeman was president and chief executive officer of the city’s workforce agency, Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, where she grew the agency’s operating budget, increased the number and scope of its partnerships with philanthropic investors and employers, improved its data and reporting capacity, and more than doubled the number of Detroit at Work career centers across the city. She brings more than 20 years of experience across the corporate, nonprofit, and entrepreneurial sectors, as well as the proven ability to develop and manage complex public-private partnerships. Sherard-Freeman holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and she completed graduate studies in organizational management and development at Fielding Graduate University. She also holds a credential in global human capital trends from the Columbia University School of Professional Studies.
In this conversation with Elisabeth Jacobs, WorkRise’s deputy director, Sherard-Freeman reflects on Detroit’s renaissance in the years after bankruptcy, the vitality of the manufacturing sector, and sector-based career leaders that are being established with the help of unions. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Elisabeth Jacobs: Cities have been plunged into uncertainty because of COVID-19 and the need to shut down parts of the economy. Detroit, the city you help lead, is experienced in dealing with crises—the financial crisis, the collapse of the auto industry, and bankruptcy. Are there lessons from those crises that are informing your current response?
Nicole Sherard-Freeman: I believe our ability to quickly and expertly craft economic development initiatives with large employers was part of what has gotten Detroit, after bankruptcy and before COVID, to a point of economic viability, with more resident hope, employer enthusiasm, and philanthropic engagement than we have ever seen.
Shortly after we emerged from bankruptcy, JP Morgan Chase and other private and philanthropic partners got involved on a number of fronts, like helping Mayor Mike Duggan with both the funding and the resources necessary for the most basic city services, such as getting street lights turned on, getting the trash picked up, having emergency medical services response times be more like the national average and not an hour or two. And because we were emerging from bankruptcy, we had the cover of being able to do some really bold things all at once. Bankruptcy was the all-time low for our city, and lots of things we wish didn’t have to happen happened as a concession.
Then we came out of bankruptcy, and things have been really on the upswing on a number of fronts. We think people have a reason to be hopeful in ways they hadn’t in the past, and we now have the jobs and emerging infrastructure to be able to support that. The hope we’d started to build before COVID helped us see forward in a new way. I don’t know if it would have been possible for us if COVID had hit right after we came out of bankruptcy. I believe we’ve built some capabilities and some muscle that are helping us power through this in ways that would not have been possible five, six years ago.
We think people have a reason to be hopeful in ways they hadn’t in the past, and we now have the jobs and emerging infrastructure to be able to support that.
EJ: Could you share your thoughts on what is happening in the Detroit labor market right now?
NS-F: Obviously, so much of what happens in the local labor market is driven by where we are in our economic development cycle and where we are in actually bringing new deals to generate jobs. On the demand side, we have been very fortunate. I’m on multiple calls a week where from a demand perspective, it feels like Christmas! Here is what I’m hearing from employers: “We hear you’re really good at filling jobs. Can you help us with these 500? Can you help us with these 400? We’re going to move our headquarters to Detroit.” And these are jobs that pay more than $15–$16 per hour. On the supply side, things are going just as well. Our interview show rate is 89 percent. That means 89 out of 100 folks show up for the interview, and in some cases, that’s two times better or more than what’s happening nationally. I’m talking to CEOs of temp staffing or permanent staffing firms who are telling me their show rate is like 74 or 75 percent.
EJ: Regarding that 89 percent show rate, do you have a hypothesis for what distinguishes Detroit from what is going on nationally? What have you been doing right, and what more needs to be done to close the gap?
NS-F: I don’t have a solid hypothesis yet, but the inputs I will use to form one are taking shape. We relate to the community with people who are from the community. I think when you reach out to people, engage them, and talk to them about what they’re going to experience, it helps them see themselves in the opportunity. If you show them pictures, run them through a video, make it fun and engaging, it builds hype on the front end of recruitment, and that’s part of what makes Detroit different.
Nationally, there may be some behavioral economics going on that may be contributing to people staying out of the workforce. We’ve talked a lot about worker voice, but I am keenly interested in understanding worker behavior and supply-side behaviors. I don’t understand those dynamics yet, but for the health of this nation and the health of our national economy, we better be trying to figure it out. In many cases, businesses have more demand than they can fill. On the supply side, there are questions that remain to be answered.
EJ: Talking about the Detroit economy is a reminder of how manufacturing is still a vital sector. Is there still a pathway to upward mobility in manufacturing that is inclusive of workers without postsecondary credentials?
NS-F: We are in a bubble of sorts because these deals with employers were inked before COVID-19. For example, we have an economic development deal with Dakota Systems that has real estate incentives tied to it, and they can’t back out of that. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has a deal with real estate incentives tied it. They have also committed to saying they would take returning citizens on a case-by-case basis and as long as the candidates don’t have a significant criminal record. Then we’ve got Detroit Manufacturing Systems, which is offering jobs at $14 an hour for those with a high school diploma and a year’s worth of job experience.
All these companies hiring more than 300 people give us a glimpse into the steps on a career ladder that are taking shape in our labor market. We have jobs at $13 per hour that require no high school diploma, all the way through to a $20 per hour job that requires a high school diploma and a year’s worth of experience. And this is just a little slice of low-skilled manufacturing. So right now, we are, fortunately, in a really good place to generate quality jobs for workers without a postsecondary credential.
Unions have played an important role in helping us negotiate with companies and prospective workers. They have helped us negotiate a higher wage floor and get buy-in from jobseekers, which allows us to tell workers there is a career path for them beyond an entry-level job.
EJ: Automation is one of those forces that predates COVID-19 and has accelerated during the pandemic. How are you thinking about automation and the effect it might have on manufacturing jobs?
NS-F: It’s true that we have not felt the full impact of how artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will impact these kinds of jobs. We’ve got the data to tell us which jobs are most vulnerable across industries by sector and at the position level, so I can see where it’s coming. Right now, my focus is getting folks ready for opportunities in front of them and, concurrently, talking to my current and potential partners about how we can help. At the same time, I have a responsibility to educate our community on the significant upsides of automation and artificial intelligence (AI). I’ve been in manufacturing plants and have seen firsthand how automation makes a typical, conventional laborer’s job significantly easier. Manufacturing technology not only produces a high-quality product in a fraction of the time, but it also helps reduce the wear and tear of repetitive motion and heavy lifting on workers’ bodies.
EJ: What role have unions played in maintaining Detroit’s manufacturing base and in providing the good jobs and the mobility pathways you were sketching out before?
NS-F: Unions are really central to what we’ve been able to do on the manufacturing side, both in skills and unskilled labor. Because of Detroit’s history with auto manufacturing, unions play such a critical role in ensuring we are able to attract expansions like FCA, General Motors, and Ford, to a degree. At the heart of all that is happening in Detroit is this good, evolving relationship with unions. Second, I’d say on the construction and skilled trade side, there’s a lot of growth there, and those relationships are a bit more complicated, particularly between unions and workers of color.
Unions have played an important role in helping us negotiate with companies and prospective workers. They have helped us negotiate a higher wage floor and get buy-in from jobseekers, which allows us to tell workers there is a career path for them beyond an entry-level job. They certainly played a role in working with FCA to create a climate to make these jobs more accessible to a wider range of Detroiters and those who are disconnected from the labor market. Over the next couple of years, if the economy bounces back and continues to expand to where it was before COVID, you could end up from going from an unskilled job to a skilled, union job and be on the career track pretty quickly to a good-paying, middle-class job with full benefits.
I’m eager to get moving on how we’re going to help close foundational skills gaps—problem-solving, conflict resolution, critical thinking—that exist across a broad range of low-to-moderate income workers in the US. It’s not an urban or rural problem. It’s a national crisis that crosses every industry at some level.
EJ: How will your new role leading both workforce and economic development in Detroit get these agencies’ strategies into alignment? How does merging these functions into a single vision allow you to expand opportunities for residents and better serve employers?
NS-F: My team and I bring deep workforce expertise to every conversation with employers. What we’ve been trying to build with Detroit at Work over the past five years is a simpler way for jobseekers, employers, and anybody else to engage and move people to economic opportunity. We can articulate the value proposition of Detroit’s workforce early on. There is often an unintentional disconnect within a company among those who are siting a new corporate location or facility and those who are developing staffing plans. We help employers consider both up front and help solve for both. We also raise hard, important questions about the skills an employer needs and get a jump start on building talent solutions to deliver the workforce they require. We can quickly get past the job-posting level of intel to a deeper level of understanding of what it will take to build the talent a company needs. And because we are developing deep relationships with employers, we’re able to be honest and direct with our residents about the skills they will need to be competitive.
EJ: What research questions animate you and would help you do your job better if they were answered?
I’m eager to get moving on how we’re going to help close foundational skills gaps—problem-solving, conflict resolution, critical thinking—that exist across a broad range of low-to-moderate income workers in the US. It’s not an urban or rural problem. It’s a national crisis that crosses every industry at some level. I’m also looking forward to working with local and regional employers on understanding the impact of AI and automation on low-income jobs. It’s hard to predict the long-term impacts of COVID-19, but we would be smart to get ahead in our understanding of these impacts to build solutions so both employers and workers can benefit from shifts taking place.