Detroit, Michigan — When Alison Norris couldn't find work in Detroit, she searched past the city limits, ending up with a part-time restaurant job that's 20 miles away but takes at least two hours to get to via separate city and suburban bus systems.
For many city residents with limited skills and education, Detroit is an employment desert, having lost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs in manufacturing cutbacks and service jobs as the population dwindled. What's available to those without cars — about 40 percent of Detroit's population, according to federal figures — often are low-paying retail or sales positions far outside the city.
Mayor Mike Duggan has made rebuilding the population and creating jobs and training programs one of Detroit's priorities now that the city is out of bankruptcy. But those jobs may not materialize quickly enough for Norris and others who've found local prospects slim, and the lack of reliable public transit is an obstacle that's driving even those who've stuck it out to consider leaving.
"There no jobs in Detroit," said Norris, 26, waiting in 16-degree temperatures for the first of two buses to the tony Somerset Collection mall in Troy, where she makes $8.25 an hour as a bistro hostess. "If it's no jobs, then why stay in the city?" said Norris. "There is nothing here."
The city's unemployment rate, which hit 25 percent in 2009, stood at 14.9 percent last year, state figures show, compared to a regional rate below 7 percent. And the number of Detroit residents who work outside the city is nearly double the number with jobs inside the city, according to statistics from a regional planning organization, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
More than 228,000 Detroit residents commute beyond the city limits, while only about 115,000 people who live in Detroit also work in the city, SEMCOG says. Inner-ring suburbs are the primary work destinations for Detroit residents. But several thousand, like Norris, make longer odysseys.
"The city of Detroit has been on hard times for a while, and there aren't as many jobs in the city as I'm sure the city will like," said Carmine Palombo, SEMCOG's deputy executive director. "Mayor Duggan is working on that. But for right now, there are a lot of jobs — and some of the lower paying jobs — in the suburbs that people from the city are trying to fill."
Part of the problem is getting there. The Motor City, built largely on the auto ownership dream, tore up its streetcar system in the 1950s. The city today has no subway or tram system outside a 3-mile elevated loop that serves only downtown. And while construction has begun on a light rail, it will connect only the thriving downtown and Midtown areas, not reach into the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
As its financial state worsened, Detroit had reduced bus service on some routes and eliminated others. A regional transportation system — separate from Detroit's and primarily serving the suburbs — also has struggled with funding. TheDetroit Free Press recently reported on 56-year-old James Robertson, who said he walked 21 miles to and from his factory job in the suburbs after his car failed and bus service was cut back.
The bus routes still provide a cobbled-together lifeline for those like Norris, who said she'd prefer to work in Detroit.
"I wouldn't have to take the bus because I could pay somebody to take me around," said Norris. "But nobody is going to drive all the way out to Somerset."
Her desire to one day move closer to where the jobs are collides with Duggan's hopes to spur growth in the city, whose population has fallen to 680,000 from a high of 1.8 million in the 1950s.
"There are a lot of people trying to rely on public transportation to get them to a job," Palombo said. "What you tend to see is ... people move out along with the jobs. It's that movement of households."
Duggan has said Detroit is working on training programs to prepare residents for skilled jobs in the city. The fire department will help high school students receive paramedic and firefighting certifications, and the police department is working on a similar program. The mayor said half the jobs on an entertainment complex and hockey arena, most initially construction work, will go to city residents.
"It helps a lot if we can get the jobs located nearby," said Duggan, who also announced earlier this year that the city would get 80 new buses and launch a mobile app for the system.
One new business, Detroit Manufacturing Systems, is working with the city on bus times to accommodate employee schedules, said owner Andra Rush. Entry-level workers making auto interiors earn $11 an hour plus benefits. The company has hired nearly 1,000 workers, including 300 over the past few months, and more than half the new hires live in Detroit.
That's no accident. "By hiring Detroiters, we help Detroit," said Rush.