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IN THE PIPELINE

High school's work program feeds industry's talent pool

John Williams, a junior at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, works in the climatic wind tunnel at General Motors' Tech Center as part of the school's work-study program. He says the work has helped him improve his organization skills, which has helped with school, too. Photo credit: JACOB LEWKOW
Cristo Rey Network
  • What it is: A chain of 32 Catholic high schools in low-income neighborhoods across the U.S.
  • How it started: In 1996, Jesuit priests in Chicago opened the first school with a work-study program to help fund it.
  • How it's funded: Students' salaries from the work-study program (about $7,500 each), fundraisers, donors, foundations and a small tuition.

DETROIT — When General Motors engineer Joaquin Nuno-Whelan returned to Detroit in 2014 after working overseas for two and a half years, he attended a GM recruiting conference.

Nuno-Whelan recalls that the bill was high — and that none of the candidates at the conference was local.

That "lit a little fire under me that we need to grow the local talent better," said Nuno-Whelan, chief engineer for GM's next-generation full-size SUVs.

"I know very clearly what it costs to go to these recruiting conferences and what I spent on these recruiting teams last year to talk to a kid at a job fair for five minutes, to get his resume and fly him to Detroit and maybe he accepts the job," he said. "I can take that same budget or even that budget reduced, focus it on [local programs], and the [return on investment] will be greater."

Nuno-Whelan: With local recruiting, the return on investment for General Motors will be greater.

Now, Nuno-Whelan brings students from Detroit Cristo Rey High School into GM's engineering world. GM is one of several automotive companies that participate in the school's work-study program.

The Detroit program is part of a national network of Cristo Rey schools that aims to give students professional work experience and show them what kind of career they could have with a college degree. And it gives employers a source of potential engineering and technical employees.

GM has partnered with Detroit Cristo Rey since 2011. The automaker has employed 50 students during the 2016-17 academic year.

Michael Khoury, president of Detroit Cristo Rey, says the program motivates kids for college. Photo credit: HANNAH LUTZ

Jesuit priests in Chicago opened the first Cristo Rey High School in 1996. Initially, a work-study program seemed to be a way to fund the school. But as companies trained students, the program ended up giving students opportunities that could extend well beyond their high school years. And it provided a roster for businesses, such as automakers and suppliers, to hire from.

GM views the program as a local talent pipeline for aspiring engineers, Nuno-Whelan said at a Cristo Rey Network event in Detroit in March.

32 schools

Enrollment in the Cristo Rey Network, which now consists of 32 high schools nationwide, is limited to low-income high school students. To help fund the schools, each student works at least one full day per week in an entry-level position at a local business. At Detroit Cristo Rey, job partners include automakers such as GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles; suppliers such as Magna International, American Axle and Ideal Group; and other local businesses, such as hospitals, banks and energy companies.

The students are "working with engineers or nurses or HR managers who have these nice jobs. Now the kid is starting to see the value of college, plus they've got a supervisor who works with them," said Michael Khoury, president of Detroit Cristo Rey.

The program motivates students to go to college, gives them an edge when they apply for jobs and establishes a recruiting bench for local businesses, he said.

"Most kids at 18 don't have anything [on their resumes], or if they do, it's the pizza shop like I worked at," Khoury said. "Our kids probably worked in the design studio for Chrysler for two years, and people are like, 'I can't believe this.'"

Paulina Torres, a 2015 Detroit Cristo Rey graduate, is working toward a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Detroit Mercy. She worked on utility restoration and workplace improvement projects at GM while she was in high school. Before she shadowed GM's engineers, she thought about opening a hair salon or studying business, but after seeing the engineering opportunities an automaker such as GM offers, she was hooked.

Enrollment considerations
Students must meet 3 noneducational standards to enroll at Detroit Cristo Rey, said Michael Khoury, the school's president. The 4th consideration centers on education. Though Khoury has a goal in mind, students are eligible for enrollment even if they don't meet his goal.
Low income: Families' income must be below about $15,000 per person in the household. The average income for the incoming freshman class is $34,000 per household, the highest it's ever been.
Legal documentation: The students must complete a federal I-9 form to enroll, which means they must show that they are either citizens or immigrants who can legally work in the U.S. In southwest Detroit, where the school is located, "not everyone has documentation, but our students do," Khoury said. "Our policy is that the student has to have documentation. Anyone else in their family is not my business."
Attitude: The students have to want to be at Cristo Rey. Faculty and administration interview them before they are accepted to ensure they would be a good fit.
Reading level: Khoury wants students to read at the 7th grade level when they enter 9th grade, although that's not always the case.

Russ Brewster was the first GM employee to sign onto Cristo Rey's program. His goal is to strengthen the connection to STEM and use it as a springboard for other companies that need more engineers. Photo credit: HANNAH LUTZ

"I got to learn what [GM's engineers] were doing and how they got into engineering, what motivated them to get into engineering," she said. "That sort of sparked my interest. Also the fact that there's not a lot of women in engineering. I thought, 'You know what, I think this sounds like a great path for me.'"

Russ Brewster, director of asset services and user experience for global business services at GM, said the company is open to working with students outside engineering but "some don't know they want to be in engineering because they don't know what engineers do."

Future engineers

Brewster was the first GM employee to sign onto Cristo Rey's program, but he pegged Nuno-Whelan as a candidate to expand the program because he had heard about Nuno-Whelan's work with FIRST robotics, a high school nonprofit program that has a Detroit chapter. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST also offers programs for K-8 students.

Detroit Cristo Rey High School

Brewster's goal is to strengthen the connection to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and use it as a springboard for other companies that need more engineers. GM employees, along with employees of other automakers and suppliers, mentor Detroit high school students in FIRST robotics. In March, Cristo Rey's team won a FIRST robotics competition against other teams from Detroit and its suburbs.

There aren't enough students leaving college with STEM degrees, Brewster said. "If your pipeline isn't big enough, you won't have enough on the other end."

The program with Cristo Rey, along with FIRST robotics, exposes students to engineering at an early age so they can take the right courses in college.

"We can't hire enough engineers right now," Nuno-Whelan said. "We have [employees] come over from Brazil, and while they're here, we say, 'Hey, do you want to just localize?' We spend the money to localize them just because they know what we're doing already."

When the current Cristo Rey senior GM interns start college and establish a GPA after their first year, there will be a solid bench of job prospects, he said.

Working with Cristo Rey started as just a good thing to do in the community, said Brewster, but "it really has become something within the company."

"For me, success is when we move to more of an institutionalized [program]. It becomes an intertwined part of an HR, recruiting, talent development program," he said.

Ideally, he would like to see GM offices in other states partner with their local Cristo Rey schools.

Most companies think of the students in teams of four. They pay each team $30,000 per year, or $7,500 per student. The jobs program covers about 53 percent of Detroit Cristo Rey's expenses, mostly salaries. The remainder of the school's funding comes from fundraisers, foundations and individual donors. Each student also pays tuition of $600 on average per year, and the administration works with families on payment plans. No one has ever been kicked out for not paying, Khoury said.

The families' income must sit below about $15,000 per person in the household for students to enroll at Cristo Rey. The average income for the incoming freshman class is $34,000 per household, the highest it's ever been, Khoury said.

Because the jobs program is part of the curriculum, the students believe they belong in the room, even with top-level executives.

"Our kids are incredibly optimistic about what their future is," Khoury said.

"And if you think you've got a bright future, then you're willing to do things to make it happen."

From Brewster's experience, local recruitment leads to better employee retention. The program is part of GM's commitment to Detroit.

"Detroit is a city that we are trying to turn around as a community," he said. "Part of that turnaround has to be giving hope to the people that live in the city that there are careers outside of what they have done."

Cristo Rey Network
  • What it is: A chain of 32 Catholic high schools in low-income neighborhoods across the U.S.
  • How it started: In 1996, Jesuit priests in Chicago opened the first school with a work-study program to help fund it.
  • How it's funded: Students' salaries from the work-study program (about $7,500 each), fundraisers, donors, foundations and a small tuition.
You can reach Hannah Lutz at hlutz@crain.com

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