WASHINGTON (AP) Malachi Yisrael stands and speaks before a couple dozen people in the back of a construction trailer just east of the 11th Street Bridge to Anacostia. The room is decorated with white and red balloons. Construction plans and photographs of people in orange work vests cover the walls.
It’s a graduation ceremony, of sorts, and Yisrael is one of the commencement speakers.
He sports a bright blue plaid button-down shirt, big dreads and a bigger smile, plus a criminal record that starts at age 13. He’s just happy to be there. So are the seven graduating students who are part of an innovative training program that puts some of the city’s most disadvantaged adults on the engineering side of a construction job site.
The program is part of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation’s 11th Street Bridge Project, the most expensive job the department has ever undertaken. On-the-job training programs are mandatory for projects that receive federal funding. They give local residents a chance to learn a skill. Usually, they’re for the lowest-paid positions — the hard labor.
This time, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy challenged his own department and the contractors to build a legacy.
Instead of putting people to work at the bottom, the new training program introduces students to construction management, a way into a new career. In 2010, a carpenter’s median pay was $39,530, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median pay for a building inspector was $52,360.
The pilot program had just six students. Yisrael was one of them. Senior inspectors, resident engineers and construction managers from the job site teach the eight-week course. At the end, the students take the American Concrete Institute exam, which certifies them to inspect concrete on job sites.
On the exam, they get an hour to complete 55 multiple-choice questions and demonstrate their new skills in a performance section. They might, for instance, have to make and cure concrete or test it for air content using a variety of methods. After three classes, six of the 21 students have found employment in the construction industry.
Most of the students come from Ward 8, and seven are veterans. The classes were designed for individuals with tough luck and a tough work ethic. Yisrael always had both.
A native of Lincoln Heights, he remembers a different Washington in the 1980s than the one he sees today on the job traveling across the city.
“D.C. was real bad then,’’ he said. “Everybody had a gun.’’
In fifth grade, he dropped out of school and started working for his grandfather, who had his own home improvement business. He was doing drywall and carpentry. He said he liked the work.
Then there was the fight. Yisrael doesn’t remember too much about it, and in conversation, he’s anxious to get past it. There was an older man, and the two got into an argument on the street. He can’t remember why. They both pulled guns. Yisrael shot first. Once was enough. Yisrael was 13.
He ended up in juvenile prison, a place he credits as giving him a second chance. It was there he learned how to read and write, earning his GED when he was 16.
When he finally got out, he was turning 18. Two things were still waiting for him, a life of crime and the construction industry. He alternated between the two, always struggling with a criminal record to find work.
“I didn’t become a criminal because it was fun,’’ he said, “I was poor. It’s not to justify it; it’s just that everybody was doing it.’’
Yisrael was in and out of prison for robbery, drug possession and other crimes. Out again in 2002, things seemed to settle down. He even started his own home improvement company in 2005. He worked as a contractor, building homes and finishing basements during the housing boom. But things fell apart.
“I had never really had a job before and me having my own company, it was good when it was good but I didn’t have the knowledge,’’ he said. “I didn’t understand how to get back up.’’
Then he was busted for possession with intent to distribute heroin and it was another 18 months in prison.
“I’ve been a criminal most of my life,’’ he said, “I kind of made up my mind in prison: I wasn’t going back.’’
When he got out, staying in a halfway house, someone told him about the construction management training program, so he applied. Yisrael had never heard of construction management.
Most of the material wasn’t too hard, except some of the math. He graduated in March and passed the test. He got a job with a local construction engineering company, FMC and Associates, based just down the street from the 11th Street Bridge site.
Now he works full time for the firm, sometimes clocking 70-hour weeks. When new homeowners flooding the district’s market want to add a porch or a sunroom, Yisrael inspects everything to see whether it would be structurally sound.
“I’m much more responsible,’’ he said. “I still deal with the same problems; it rains on me just like it did last year, the same rain, but now I know how to deal with it.’’
Yisrael shared his experience with the newest program graduates at the October ceremony. “I had a terrible past,’’ he told them. “With these certifications, they don’t really look at your past.’’ After his own graduation, Yisrael got certified for soil inspections as well. He plans to accumulate as many certifications in the field as he can and one day open his own home improvement business again.
The students can relate to his dream.
For Marveall Gibson, one of only two women to complete the program, it’s a condo. She said she’s spent her life in dead-end jobs and sees construction management as a career path. She’s taken electrical trade and computer classes, trying to add to her résumé.
“Whatever graduation she has next,’’ said her sister Shanta Ward, “I’ll be there, too.’’
After the pictures and the cake, everyone gathers his or her coat and heads into the night. Many talk about what is now program lore: the second graduation when four students were hired on the spot to work on the 11th Street Bridge. Now, construction on the site is winding down. Skanska, the developer, has started laying people off, including one graduate from the program. None of the most recent students has employment yet.
Still, most are hopeful. Because they come in with the recommendation of a referral group, they leave the course with the promise of future help, if not a job.
Program organizers want to see it continue, possibly as part of the South Capitol Street Project, which will replace the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.
Yisrael said he likes coming back to speak at the graduations to see the progress the program has made, all the people it has helped.
His favorite job so far was a four-month stint at Howard University. On campus, he could feel the energy and potential.
He sees the city differently now when he travels around for work. “From a non-criminal perspective,’’ he joked. It’s still a struggle for him to find a place in the city where he grew up. He’s been turned down for three apartments so far because of his record. But at least with his new job, he feels like he can start to put it behind him.