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GM Woes Hit Close to Home for Young Graduates

June 8, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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In the first of a new set of reports for the Generation Next series, Judy Woodruff traveled to Detroit to profile recent graduates from a GM training program who are now facing the prospect of finding a new career.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, more from Generation Next.

Three years ago, Judy Woodruff did a series of reports profiling the younger generation. She returned to the road recently to see how they were faring in the recession. And here is the first of Judy’s four new reports. This one’s from Detroit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When we first met LaKeesha Perry almost three years ago, she was a 23-year-old from inner-city Detroit, putting in long hours, studying for a college degree, and interning at General Motors.

As we profiled members of Generation Next, Perry caught our eye because she seemed to be successfully juggling school and work and, remarkably, raising three children.

LAKEESHA PERRY: I don’t say “can’t” anymore. It’s out of my vocabulary. You try, try your best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even then she acknowledged being a single mother was taking a toll, but sounded confident about the career she’d chosen.

Do you worry, though, with the auto industry under the stresses that it’s under right now — cutbacks, layoffs — that that may not be a great potential job?

LAKEESHA PERRY: I worry about that a little bit because that’s my field, that’s what I would like to go into. But I think that it’s just a trend. It’s a cycle. I think manufacturing will be around forever.

G.M. not hiring

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three years later, LaKeesha Perry is 26. She's just graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in engineering technology, in large part thanks to a 41-year-old program called Focus: HOPE aimed at making college accessible for young people like her.

But her end goal, a job at G.M. she thought would be there, so far isn't, and that is still sinking in.

LAKEESHA PERRY: Yes, a little bit of a disbelief, I would say. You hear a rumor of it, but it's like, no, you know, that couldn't be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: G.M. is out of the picture, but Perry recently paid a visit to the place where she had dreamed of working after interning there four-and-a-half years. Some semesters she would work 40-hour weeks while taking classes and studying an additional 15 hours a week.

Headlines about G.M.'s problems are now a daily reminder of the uphill battle for Perry. So, too, are the many empty desks and cubicles where she once worked.

Milissa Spry, a 30-year G.M. veteran, was Perry's supervisor.

MILISSA SPRY, General Motors: In normal times, what happens with our co-op students is we make a determination at the end of -- when they're ready to graduate if we would hire or not. And the determination for LaKeesha was definitely a yes, but, unfortunately, because of the tough economic times, we're not hiring right now.

High unemployment rates

JUDY WOODRUFF: If it's still sinking in with Perry and her classmates, the reality has fully hit the leadership of Focus: HOPE, which is trying to raise more money to fund future students and to help current graduates find jobs, in this city with an almost 23 percent unemployment rate.

WILLIAM JONES, CEO, Focus: HOPE: We're doing quite a few exciting things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: William Jones, a Chrysler veteran, took over as CEO of Focus: HOPE just five months ago.

WILLIAM JONES: It may not be as easy as it once was, where the recruiters are lined up outside the door waiting for them to walk off the stage right after they get their diplomas and snap them up. But, nonetheless, that same, same attitude, that same spirit will guide them as they find employment that they seek.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-five-year-old Vanessa Sherrod is another new Wayne State graduate with a degree in engineering technology.

VANESSA SHERROD: I'm a certified machinist. I'm Green Belt certified. I have a little cost-estimating experience here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She, too, has been scouring the Detroit area for a full-time job.

VANESSA SHERROD: Independence, you know, it was your reward for going to school all this time and, you know, doing what it is that you were supposed to do. And, you know, just getting your education, you know, that was the reward at the end. You know, you would get a job, you would be successful, and you would be able to provide for your family.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When the auto industry started to melt down, she had to readjust her thinking quickly.

VANESSA SHERROD: You are looking at a Plan B. I never thought that could even happen. So once it did happen, you know, reality did hit and it was like, "Oh, my god, what am I going to do?"

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could you believe it?

VANESSA SHERROD: I really don't think that I really believe it now. I'm just waiting for somebody to be like, "OK, it was a joke."

Diversifying a job search

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sherrod, like Perry, is also a single mom. Her 2-year-old daughter, Anaya, and she moved back in with her mother to share her apartment.

And Perry's life has become even more complicated since she chose to have a fourth child, a now 1-year-old daughter who joined 3-, 4-, and 11-year-old brothers. Children of both women attend the day care program on the Focus: HOPE campus.

LAKEESHA PERRY: Me, I know my weakness in Detroit, you know, not to say is a right thing, but, you know, to be a single mom and to have kids and work and go to school, it's kind of a typical thing. It's nothing that's so farfetched. You make a compromise between the things that you want and the things you have to do and you figure out how to get it all done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vanessa Sherrod says it's her young daughter who in large part drives her.

VANESSA SHERROD: I don't want to come off to her as, "Mommy can't do it. Mommy isn't strong. Mommy's doubt. You can't always be successful, and you can always try your hardest to do better."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sherrod has been accepted into a master's degree program in finance but needs to figure out how she would pay for it and work full-time while studying full-time and raising her daughter as she's done these past years.

LAKEESHA PERRY: Today's agenda is going to be looking at the power rule, which is one of the basic rules of integration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry has tutored other students in calculus.

LAKEESHA PERRY: What form is it that you have here? You have X squared over X.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to adjust to the downturn, she has diversified her job search, dropping resumes or making application to some 50 companies, including Bayer, Pepsi, Kia Automotive, Dow, and the state government. She's also investigating health technology studies online.

LAKEESHA PERRY: It is kind of a tear-jerker situation, but there's nothing that I have gained over the years that I'll lose.

Adapting to changing market

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wayne State University President Jay Noren says Detroit is diversifying, and he hopes talented young people like Perry and Sherrod will stick around because they have the ability to adapt.

JAY NOREN, President, Wayne State University: I think the key is this now developed and developing 10-year-long re-engineering of the economy, with an emphasis on alternative energy and biomedical sciences and the kind of things that are in the new era of a green economy, we have faced these economic pressures longer than any other state, really, and so we've had to invest earlier and understand earlier the need to diversify the economy in technical fields.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To that end, Wayne State recently unveiled a $27 million engineering development facility to be used to research more efficient auto engines and create alternative fuels to help create new types of jobs in a more green economy.

But while continuing to scout for jobs, Sherrod is considering leaving Detroit, again with her daughter in mind.

VANESSA SHERROD: I grew up with the big three. You know, that's really all anyone ever knew. So I want her to know -- I want her to be able to think outside the box and think outside of Detroit walls. I want her to know that there's a whole world out there, so I think her future will be much brighter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Detroit slowly makes this evolution, Perry, like Sherrod, tries to keep a routine with her kids and hopes to ensure that their generation may inherit a stronger Detroit.

Do you think there's something in particular about your generation, Generation Next, that's particularly equipped to handle this, or does it make it harder?

LAKEESHA PERRY: The companies had gotten to be where they were so traditional and so in the mindset of, you know, their functions of, "This is how we've been doing it for 30 years." And our generation kind of brings into flexibility, you know, working in those new ideals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That flexibility is being tested here in Detroit in ways Generation Next never imagined.

JIM LEHRER: Judy's reports are a partnership with National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Their first story aired this morning, and the rest, like ours, will air every Monday in June.