Outside the tall, intimidating security gates surrounding the Detroit Job Corps (DJC) campus, there are rows of dilapidated houses. Vacant homes litter the neighborhood, with broken windows and front doors flung open, awaiting entry from uninvited guests.
Launched in Detroit in 1972, Detroit Job Corps provides a no-cost education and career technical training program that helps high-risk youth ages 16 to 24 in a full-time residential setting. This program is a beacon of hope to a struggling population. Thirty-six percent of Detroiters live in poverty, making it the highest rate among the nation’s 20 largest cities.
ABC Southeastern Michigan Chapter electrical instructor, Ricardo Smith, knows what it’s like to grow up with the odds stacked against him. He is an African American who grew up in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of Detroit. His dad left home when he was 9 or 10 years old, leaving his mom to raise seven kids on her own. Fate led Ricardo to the skilled trades when his high school principal required all graduating seniors to attend the Randolph School and Technical Center, where he fell in love with the electrical trade.
After years of working in the industry, Ricardo met ABC SE Michigan founding president, Dennis Siekierski, at a Skills USA competition. Siekierski and Smith talked about him teaching electrical classes at ABC. Fast forward to today, Smith has been teaching at ABC for four years now. He has set himself apart as a distinguished leader among nearly 20 instructors at the rapidly-expanding school. He serves as a classroom mentor and role model to many.
Working two decades in the electrical field, Smith slowly made his way to the top, landing as the maintenance manager/industrial engineer for Lear Corporation. While he enjoyed the prestige that comes from working for a tier 1 auto supplier in the automotive capitol of the world, that challenge wasn’t enough. His heart pulled him back to the city of Detroit to help the youth he refused to leave behind.
Using his experience as an ABC instructor as his foundation, Smith left the comfort of a traditional day job to begin training young students full time in July 2017. Smith teaches three electrical classes from 7:45am–4:30pm at DJC Monday–Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday nights he teaches his regular 3-hour classes at ABC, and he instructs at Macomb Community College on Wednesday nights.
Ricardo said that he has a special connection with his students because he can relate to their personal struggles. “I can forgive their imperfections quickly,” he said, noting that other adults often don’t get past certain behaviors or traits that are common in impoverished or troubled youth. As a black youngster himself raised in Detroit, his students’ challenges were not all that different from his own growing up.
Smith frequently serves as an ambassador for the ABC training program to the outside community. His continuing relationship at the Randolph School in Detroit has allowed him to connect dozens of his students with employers, while also often recommending they transition from their pre-apprenticeship training to the ABC program.
ABC student Ryan Szymanski succinctly described Smith as having “outstanding character” and the student said his teacher “uses his talent to help less fortunate people.”
While that tall, intimidating security gate still surrounds the Detroit Job Corp campus, Ricardo Smith serves as a bridge that connects the city’s youth to the skilled trades and shows them a path to self-sufficiency and hope. An inspirational leader and mentor like Smith doesn’t come around often. ABC is lucky to call him one of their own.