Class Mobility

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Last Spring, Zaire Johnson finally obtained his high school diploma from a night school program in Newark. Johnson, 23, had never held a job. He lived with his grandmother, and he was ready to start his life: “You gotta grow up sometime, you gotta do something,” says Johnson. “I want to try to be an electrician.”

And so, on a humid evening in June, Johnson sat in the un-air-conditioned auditorium of Bloomfield Tech High School in New Jersey at an orientation night for the Essex County Construction Careers (ECCC) Program, an eight-week pre-apprenticeship. Isa Mohammad, a member of Ironworkers Local 11, initiated Johnson and 29 others–chosen from 200 applicants–in the rights and responsibilities of membership in a trade union. Mohammad entered the trades when there were few minorities, and he made no promises to those assembled. “There’s no guarantee, because there are no guarantees in life. But you have a great opportunity,” he told them. “You have to adopt the attitude of a plumber, electrician, an ironworker. You’re part of a brotherhood.”

The initiation is wide-ranging. Classes teach trainees everything from how to read blueprints and use basic tools to the history of the trade union movement and how to prepare for tests and interviews. Students also visit construction sites and receive a $100 weekly stipend. But most importantly, they get a precious chance to break into lucrative trades and earn union wages. ECCC is a pilot developed by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and funded largely with money from private foundations. Construction training programs like this are not unusual. In 1995, New York City’s School Construction Authority and other public agencies joined with the Building Trades Council to launch a similar training program, which is now run by the unions.

But New Jersey is on the brink of building something much bigger: a statewide, state-funded gateway into the construction business for young people who have historically been excluded from the field. The Institute has been advising state officials on the project, and is hoping that ECCC will be an important participant in the training effort.

Last year, then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed into law the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, committing an unprecedented $8.6 billion for school construction and reconstruction. The law sets aside one-half of 1 percent of construction costs for job training for minorities and women.

The lion’s share of the new construction dollars, some $6 billion, will go to the 30 school districts covered under the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in Abbott v. Burke, which ordered the state to fund poorer school districts at the same levels as school districts whose property taxes pay for quality schools. Located in struggling cities like Newark and Camden, the so-called Abbott districts have chronically failing schools and high rates of unemployment and underemployment. They will see 100 percent of their construction costs covered by state-issued bonds.

As a result of the school construction act, Abbott districts will receive about $30 million for programs preparing residents for construction jobs. The school building and rebuilding itself will provide employment for 10 or 15 years.

It was an opportunity the Institute for Social Justice, a Newark-based advocacy group, couldn’t pass up. The Institute began discussions about the concept for ECCC last fall, and a new consortium–involving school superintendents, union representatives, building contractors, foundations, and faith and community organizations from Essex County, which includes Newark–met for the first time this past March. Their goal: To ensure that this massive school construction initiative–the largest public works program ever undertaken in New Jersey–recognized its potential as a community revitalization tool. “The opportunity inherent in the school construction program to benefit communities not only educationally but as an economic development matter is exceptional,” says Ken Zimmerman, the organization’s executive director.

The steering committee resolved to make the training program part of a collective enterprise, in which unions, schools and community organizations are critical players. “We’re looking at what the industry wants, what the needs are, and where programs fall down,” says Rebecca Doggett, director of the ECCC program. “From the trade perspective, they need members, and contracts are awarded based in part on diversity of workforce. For the school districts, it’s an opportunity to hook students up with real jobs.”

Unions are losing workers as their workforce ages, and the traditional handing down of jobs is eroding as younger generations opt for white-collar jobs. The program is both a source of new apprentices and an opportunity to build good relations with communities to ensure that school districts support the use of union labor.

Community-based groups, many of which constantly struggle to find jobs for people in the neighborhood, were eager to see local residents benefit from school construction. Their participation helped ensure that adults who never got a break in the trades could try for one now.

Finally, Abbott districts need to do better by their students: Only 33 percent of Newark high school students go to college, and many others end up unemployed or underemployed.

Guidance counselors often don’t know what to do for students who aren’t heading off to college. Calvin Russell, 19, was interested in carpentry and plumbing, but it wasn’t easy getting information about training programs from his guidance counselor at Arts High School in Newark. “She kept trying to get me to apply for college or to a computer technology school,” Russell says. She finally gave him information about ECCC–three days before the deadline to apply.

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“This is a community development project, not just a school construction project,” says Mark Lohbauer, director of policy and communications for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is overseeing the construction and the bond issue. “When we identify women and minorities in the Abbott districts, we’re targeting people who need jobs the most. It will take 10 years to do construction, and it will be a reliable source of employment for years to come.”

It’s no coincidence that Lohbauer is speaking the same language as Doggett and Zimmerman. He has met with them, and he says their effort “is the kind of program the state wants to fund.” In fact, he says, ECCC informed the way the state proposal was put together. “In researching a well-rounded program, we found that it would need day care services, a convenient location, since most people in the program won’t have cars”–information he gleaned from meeting with the Newark group.

In September, the New Jersey Department of Labor entered into a memorandum of understanding with the EDA to oversee development of the training program, and issued a request for proposals with a November 26 deadline. Brian Peters, the director of the Division of Business Services of the Department of Labor, says the initial round involves $1 million for programs in Newark, Camden and Trenton. The state will issue a second RFP in January.

The state aims to draw applications from community- and faith-based groups, building trades councils, employers, and vocational training institutions; it’s also asking applicants to form partnerships with such groups. New Jersey’s One-Stop Career Centers will be an important part of the mix; they’ll provide basic skill instruction, labor market information and financial support.

Even though a new governor will soon be sworn in, both Peters and Lohbauer insist the construction initiative is not vulnerable to political changes. But the Education Law Center, which represented the students of New Jersey’s urban school districts in the Abbott case, wants to make sure the state fulfills its new legal obligations. Joan M. Ponessa, director of research for the center, says the state has only gone to bond for $500 million so far–and $325 million of that is going to non-Abbott districts. Construction contracts totaling $16 million are currently addressing health and safety violations, but the state itself identified some $600 million in emergency health and safety problems, including leaky roofs, malfunctioning boilers, and faulty plumbing.

Ponessa accuses EDA of dragging its feet. “Those $16 million in health and safety contracts represent less than 2 percent of the $600 million, and they were not made until August,” Ponessa says. Had they been made earlier, she adds, work could have proceeded over the summer months, when school was not in session: “It’s not rocket science. People repair roofs all the time.” (Says Lohbauer: “It’s a fair criticism–we’re not where we want to be.”

Screening contractors, he says, has been a particularly time-consuming process.)

Still, Ponessa remains hopeful. The recent downturn in the economy has only put pressure on the state to run effective job training efforts, she observes: “This is a public works program–a stimulus to the economy.”

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Meanwhile, Zimmerman and Doggett are optimistic that their program is already having an impact. Of the 26 ECCC participants who completed the first pre-apprenticeship program, six have taken the test for the insulators local and two are getting ready to work with the ironworkers local. Two are already on the job, as a glazier and an electrician, and an additional 10 are expected to be on the job come spring.

Zaire Johnson thought the program was “excellent…. It gave you the inside scoop on the unions,” he says. Laid off in October from a warehouse job, he’s getting his driver’s license before he takes any union tests.

For Jamal Hollis, 30, who spent the last 12 years working as a glazier in his father’s shop, ECCC was the ticket to membership in the glazier’s union. Currently, he’s working on an office construction site. Before a friend told him about ECCC, “I didn’t know about connections to get in,” says Hollis, who has a 9-year-old daughter. He counsels patience for others seeking to break into the trades: “Stay focused. If they could sacrifice four years to become a journeyman, they eventually could be making $60,000 a year. You’re learning and you’re getting benefits. You can’t beat that.”

Linda Ocasio is an education and community development writer for several publications.