Trying to Grow Jobs From A Pit In the Park

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Bronx resident Louis Melendez, 24, said he’s gotten interested in plumbing since enrolling in Project H.I.R.E., a construction skills training program of Bronx Community College. The program is teaching Melendez the basics to prepare for apprenticeship in a union.

Melendez, of the Knox-Gates neighborhood, and other Bronx residents are enrolling in union pre-apprenticeship programs, funded by the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), because of the construction jobs being created by the Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park. It turns out this mammoth project – at present, a huge hole in the ground whose completion cost has spiked from an estimated $1.3 billion to nearly $3 billion – may provide local residents with meaningful job training, despite looking like a boondoggle in other ways.

Construction of the plant itself, the largest phase of the project, is estimated to create 600 to 700 new jobs. Community groups want the 20 percent of jobs normally filled by apprentices to be filled by graduates of the pre-apprenticeship programs from the Bronx.

Since construction should start soon, residents need to join unions quickly if they are going to work at the filtration plant. “If it wasn’t for these [programs], a lot of people would not be able to get into the union,” said Jason Torres, a Bronx resident who did a pre-apprenticeship training himself, and has been involved in negotiations over the DEP’s funding of the programs.

They are important for Bronx residents who lack the training and high school diploma or equivalency needed to apply to a union. Without pre-apprenticeships, untrained workers might have to wait years just to get an interview for an apprenticeship, Torres said. But the program “gives them a heads-up of what they can expect when they get into a union,” he said.

Unions that will be working at the site, which program participants conceivably could join one day, include those representing sandhogs, operating engineers, lathers, plumbers, stonemasons, blasters, drillers, carpenters and laborers.

In addition to learning a trade, the programs offer GED courses, which are required for entering certain pre-apprenticeship programs like BuildingWorks, a project of CUNY, and the Council of Carpenters, which also is involved in the Croton project. From the Bronx alone, 170 people need a GED to either get a job or apply to certain pre-apprenticeship programs.

The pre-apprenticeship programs help to mollify local organizations, which thought there were not enough jobs from the filtration plant going to Bronx residents. By March, only 20 percent of workers were from the Bronx. “We’re not satisfied with the number of people getting jobs at the plant,” said Greg Faulkner, chairperson of Bronx Community Board 7 and the Croton Facility Monitoring Committee.

The creation of jobs, however, was one part of the controversial water filtration plant deal. Construction of the plant, which will filter the water supply from the Croton watershed, will disrupt residents who live close to Van Cortlandt Park. The Bronx parkland was chosen because officials decided construction would be cheaper than other possible locations, like a site in Westchester County.

Since local residents will be affected most by the increased pollution, rodents, and noise that stem from construction, the community groups argue that able-bodied Bronx residents should benefit from the job creation.

But to take advantage of the jobs available, neighborhood residents and community groups fought for the pre-apprenticeship programs and leaned on the DEP to provide statistics about job creation and training. “Large projects like this should be used as leverage” in getting jobs, said Bettina Damiani, project director for Good Jobs NY, a group that monitors economic development deals.

Though the DEP plans to fund more classes, as of March, 51 Bronx residents are enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs, far short of the figure community groups wanted. But they’re happy that DEP is funding 96 student slots, and has stated a goal of funding 120 in total. DEP representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

And despite the cloud over the costly project, graduates of the pre-apprenticeship programs will have skills for life. Melendez, the Bronx resident enrolled in Project H.I.R.E., plans to graduate by the end of June. Where his future in construction lies, he’s not so sure. “Whatever comes up first,” he said. “There is a lot of new construction going on.”

– Daniel Rivoli