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High-tech training in Detroit for the people industry passed by

Colored kids can't be machinists.'' That's what a white instructor told a black 14-year-old in Lansing, Mich., in 1938. The boy's name was Wilfred Little. His younger brother Malcolm would grow up to be Malcolm X, one of black America's most influential political activists.

``I can't be a machinist because I'm colored,'' Wilfred told his parents. In response, they devised a plan. The next day, the youngster approached the instructor again.

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``You see, sir,'' he said, ``in three or four years my family is going to move back to Africa, and over there I'm going to need to know how to be a machinist.''

``Oh, well, fine!'' said the instructor. ``Come on into the shop.''

Before long, Wilfred had risen to the top of his class and was the instructor's assistant.

His family did not move to Africa. Today, Wilfred E. Little is director of community relations at Focus: HOPE, a civil rights organization which, among other things, specializes in teaching machinists' skills to young blacks in Detroit.

``When unemployment hit the auto industry in the late '70s,'' says the Rev. William T. Cunningham, executive director of Focus: HOPE, ``a lot of people lost their jobs -- semiskilled and unskilled people. In Detroit, the majority of those with unskilled jobs were black, because blacks had never had access to the skilled positions in the first place.''

``Before the industry crisis, if you were black you could get a job as a mule at Chrysler, GM, or Ford, on a production line,'' he says. ``But you could never get a skilled job, such as machinist. You couldn't even get into the path for a skilled job, or into an apprentice program.''

In American industry today, unskilled jobs are being mechanized out of existence, and job opportunities for unskilled workers are drying up. Workers with high-tech skills are still in demand, but traditionally, blacks have been excluded from learning such skills. Focus: HOPE has set out to change this.

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Founded in 1968 at the height of racial tensions in Detroit, Focus: HOPE is a nonprofit industrial corporation designed to give expression to the ideals of civil rights and racial equality. It consists of manufacturing facilities, training programs, a day-care center, and a food distribution operation, all situated in Industry Mall, a 25-acre manufacturing complex in central Detroit's most economically depressed neighborhood.

Focus: HOPE's Machinist Training Institute has already trained some 450 machinists from the local community. They are now employed in more than 200 shops and plants.

``Every one of our graduates is working,'' Fr. Cunningham says. ``Industry has a great need for skilled machinists with computer experience and an understanding of electronics -- particularly in durable-goods manufacturing. The machinists are the guys who make it all go.''

``Phil Bugg is one of our graduates,'' says the Franciscan priest, with an Irishman's delight in a dramatic tale. ``He's got two kids, his wife has completed her nurse's training and is working. Grandma is taking care of the kids. They're buying a home. This guy came here on General Assistance welfare. Today he's making $11 an hour, working 60 hours a week, so 20 hours a week is overtime at $22 an hour. And he got the skill here.''

``He'd never get that kind of pay in an auto plant,'' Fr. Cunningham says. ``He'd have been on a line somewhere. But now, independent shops are opening up to blacks because now blacks can get the training.''

With examples like Phil Bugg -- and there are many -- Focus: HOPE expects to convince high school students who are often tempted to drop out of school that subjects like math have very practical applications.

``We plan to take student machinists into the high schools, along with a videotape of a training session, to show the eighth- and ninth-graders why they need the `hard' subjects like math. Kids in the schools don't even know what a machinist is. And the teachers are going to sit in on it, too, because often they don't know what a machinist needs to know, either. Our trainees will say, `Here's what you need to learn if you want this kind of career advantage.'''

Focus: HOPE does not merely pay lip service to the idea of racial equality. It puts it into practice. One-third of the students in the machinist training program are white.

``Integration is part of our philosophy,'' says Wilfred Little. ``After all, our students are going to have to work in an integrated world. We give blacks and whites exposure to each other. They learn to work together, to communicate. Some of them have never had close contact with a person of the other race before. They find they enjoy it.''

The course lasts eight months and involves between 40 and 50 hours a week, plus homework. The trainees receive no stipend, and the pressure to drop out can be severe, according to Fr. Cunningham.

``Our average trainee has been jobless for at least three years,'' he explains. ``We're talking about people who are living on nothing. Calamities happen in their families every day. We've got a crisis committee that meets daily to decide what to do with so and so -- just to keep him in the program.''

Focus: HOPE's machinist trainees are the organization's elite. Out of an astounding 5,000 candidates a month, the program can accommodate only about 20. Admission requirements are rigorous. For example, successful applicants must have completed 10th-grade math -- a challenge in a city whose public high schools are notoriously poor. But even those who are rejected have learned something by applying, says Mr. Little.

``It lets them know what they need to do in order to get themselves ready for employment,'' he explains. ``Some of the applicants will go to adult classes or get their GED [General Educational Development credential]. We've had some come back two years later and pass the test. We also have volunteer tutors who will help them reach the required level, so they can try again.

``The important thing is the exposure,'' says Little. ``Minorities have never been exposed to the skilled machinist field. For years, blacks in Detroit were able to make $13 an hour just standing at an assembly line. Some left school because of the money they could make in the factories with no skills at all. But since industry went sour, they've begun to realize they need more than the ability to stand at an assemby line. Today, robots are doing what they used to do.'' Hopes for reaching more youths

``The average age of our trainees is 26,'' says Fr. Cunningham. ``We're not taking them younger because we have so many applicants in their mid-20s. Our dream is to increase our capacity so we can take 600, 700 kids right out of high school.''

``If the folks that test the applicants find somebody with a high score, but bad in math and communications skills -- say they're an eighth-grade dropout -- we'll give them a crack at working in one of our other shops when we're hiring,'' he says.

The largest of these shops is Cycle-Tec Remanufacturing Inc. Started by Focus: HOPE in 1982 under a contract from General Motors to remanufacture automatic transmissions, Cycle-Tec has grown from 35 employees to 200 today, all from the surrounding community. They earn at least $7.10 an hour. More than 180 transmissions are remanufactured each day in a business that now grosses more than $10 million a year.

Employees of Cycle-Tec receive regular pay increases. They also take part in a profit-sharing arrangement. And Fr. Cunningham has some innovative plans for a Cycle-Tec employee bonus plan.

``I want us to put the employees through programs of self-development,'' he says. ``Instead of just paying bonuses on the basis of work productivity, I'd like to see bonuses tied to what the employees have done for themselves, too. Have they taken this English course? Have they taken this math course? Things like that.''

Focus: HOPE also runs two other production shops, Six-Twelve Metal Crafters and High Quality Manufacturing. Six-Twelve, which manufactures headlights, dimmer switches, and other parts for General Motors and Ford, is staffed exclusively with Machinist Training Institute graduates or students. Contracts total $800,000 to $900,000 a year. Ironically, Six-Twelve's biggest job to date has been the manufacture of robot bases for Chrysler Corporation.

High Quality Manufacturing's 68 employees produce hydraulic hoses and vacuum harnesses for Ford. Within a year it will employ more than 120 people -- all from the ranks of the unemployed and the welfare rolls. A widening range of services

Focus: HOPE provides day-care for all employees and trainees. And one building in Industry Mall is being transformed into a nursery, a Montessori school, and preschool. An after-school development center is also planned. All of these facilities will be geared to industrial hours.

Focus: HOPE's Food Prescription Program distributes food each month to some 45,000 mothers, infants, and preschoolers from the local community. Food for Seniors provides a monthly food supplement to some 7,500 elderly in the area.

``I don't know any program that has produced like this program has,'' F.James McDonald, president of General Motors, said about Focus: HOPE. ``When you talk about just providing jobs for people, that's one thing. But when you're actually training people to be more employable, then you're really doing something. Whatever those jobs are that they will get, they're going to be able to hold on to them for a long time, because there's a need for those kinds of jobs.''

Vice-President George Bush visited Focus: HOPE in 1982. ``We think it can serve as a model,'' he said, ``a shining example for the creation of similar programs throughout the country.''

Fr. Cunningham feels that, in addition to a moral motivation to teach marketable skills to disadvantaged youth, there is a highly pragmatic reason for doing so.

``If we don't train people in high-tech skills,'' he says, ``the nation will be down the tubes economically. We can't compete on world markets. We need to stop putting people on maintenance programs -- whether it's [welfare], drug rehabilitation, or jail -- because we've denied them access to job opportunities.''

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