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RIDOT Job Training Program Aims to Put Women, Minorities Into Industry

Tue April 24, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams


Vennecia Kingston, Building Futures graduate, now working on bridge in Pawtuxet, R.I.
Vennecia Kingston, Building Futures graduate, now working on bridge in Pawtuxet, R.I.
Vennecia Kingston, Building Futures graduate, now working on bridge in Pawtuxet, R.I. Aerial lift training prepares Building Futures trainees for construction and highway jobs. Tool and instrument use are an integral part of Building Futures training. Trainees with their model bridge at the Building Futures training facility in Providence, R.I. Building Futures graduates are placed on transportation sites throughout Rhode Island, including the recently completed Intermodal Facility at TF Green Airport.

Tina James, 34, a bartender and single mother of three, is replacing her bartender’s apron with a tool belt. She will join an iron workers program in April, where she will learn how to reinforce iron and steel for roads and bridges.

James and dozens of other women and minorities are entering the heavy iron construction industry, as they share part of the benefits of a $350,000 grant from the federal government to fund a Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) job training program that will put a pool of female and minority employees smack dab in the middle of the state’s highway projects.

Many are already trained and hired. Dozens more will join them now. Since Building Futures started in late 2007, it has placed 100 people to work in construction, people who likely never would have gotten the chance otherwise.

Women and Minorities

“The underutilization of women and minorities on highway construction has been recognized for many years,” said Building Futures Director Andrew Cortés. “In fact, as stated by the Federal Highway Administration, the On-the-Job Training Program requires State Transportation Agencies to establish apprenticeship and training programs targeted to move women, minorities and disadvantaged individuals into journey-level positions to ensure that a competent workforce is available to meet highway construction hiring needs, and to address the historical under-representation of these groups in highway construction skilled crafts.”

Cortés added that on “The ’vertical’ or ’building’ side of the construction industry, many of the employers and trade unions that jointly operate high quality Registered Apprenticeship programs have taken significant steps to address underrepresented populations in their programs. Our own RIDOT is now driving similar changes to the ’horizontal’ side of our industry through this exciting partnership.”

Of the 100 Building Futures placements into Registered Apprenticeship training and employment, 76 percent have been women and minorities.

“Those one hundred placements started their careers in nearly 60 different companies, which include both commercial building and highway contractors,” said Cortés . “On the highway side of the industry, graduates have worked on projects with many road contractors, such as Cardi Corporation, S&R/Phil Joint venture, D’Ambra Construction, Manafort Brothers Construction as well as Aetna Bridge and specialty contractors such as Cosco and others.”

Graduates Tell Their Stories

At a special ceremony on Feb. 13 at the training facility in Providence, a coterie of top federal and state officials gathered to acknowledge the success of the Building Futures program. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. Jim Langevin, Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis and Peter W. Osborn of the Federal Highway Administration all gave praise to the new faces of construction.

Current and former students stood by to share their success stories. Bartender James never imagined she would swap a bow tie for a hard hat. At the event, she told local television station ABC 6 that she questioned her decision to begin this odyssey from mixing cups to mixing concrete.

“Really, construction? Are you sure, can your body take it? Are you going to feel comfortable around the men? That’s usually always the question,” James told the ABC 6 reporter. But her confidence is no longer mixed. “It taught me a lot about myself, that I can do anything a man can do,” she added.

This $350,000 federal grant funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) gave James the chance to graduate from the program at Building Futures, all expenses paid.

“There’s just no limit, I think anything they throw at me I can learn and I hope more women follow,” said James to ABC 6.

Curtney Davis addressed the high-powered gathering of officials with a small speech which told how this job training program is truly working. Davis, an African-American, is a Building Futures graduate and member of Laborer’s Local 271.

“The training here at Building Futures couldn’t have been more beneficial in helping to prepare me for what was to come, out in the field. Without the hands-on training provided in this program, I am absolutely sure that the transition into the construction world would’ve been more difficult to navigate on my own,” said Davis.

“Being accepted into the Laborers’ Local 271 was made possible because of all of the hard work and planning that went into the construction training provided by this program. Being able to find a job, never mind a career, in today’s economy is nearly impossible without the necessary skills. So I would like to thank all of the Building Futures staff, directly, for going above and beyond to make this all possible,” he added.

Davis called his newly acquired skills “invaluable.”

“I can recall working on the bridge exercise while I was enrolled here at Building Futures. From pouring concrete forms that the bridge sat on, to leveling the beams; it all prepared me for my apprenticeship. As an apprentice, one of my assignments was working on a Rhode Island Department of Transportation project where we removed and rebuilt the bridge at Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly. I had a sense of comfort, because I didn’t feel like I was going to be thrown to the wolves and eaten alive, now I was blending in with the pack,” said Davis.

“I felt like a career in the construction industry would be a good fit for me because I like working with my hands. Being able to look back on the work that I have done makes me feel proud, and I now have a sense of accomplishment. I would like to thank all of my fellow brothers and sisters for being here to help me out when I needed it,” he added

How It Began

Building Futures Director Cortés was director of a comprehensive youth development program with a construction focus, called YouthBuild Providence.

“During my tenure there, I saw a need to provide pre-apprenticeship services at a more significant scale to address the underrepresentation in the construction trades while meeting the current and future needs of the industry. Therefore, with two other partner organizations (Build RI and ProvPlan) we began the Building Futures Initiative,” he said of its start.

“We focused on increasing utilization of registered apprenticeship on current construction projects, while providing pre-apprenticeship services for low-income, urban adults. One of the goals of this focus was also to partially address the complex problems of inner city poverty by connecting Rhode Island’s urban communities with family sustaining careers in the construction industry. At the same time, the commercial construction industry has a need to build a quality diverse workforce for the future. Building Futures was conceived as construction industry intermediary to recruit and develop the sector’s talent development needs through a cohesive sector-based strategy,” he added.

The 100 people already hired have worked on Bridge 550 (Pawtucket, R.I. bridge, S&R/Phil project), The Wickford Junction Train Station (Manafort Brothers project), and many others.

“By providing a pathway to a real career in the construction trades, low-income minorities and women gain the means for family sustaining wages — a career placement in Registered Apprenticeship for an individual can and does lift an entire family from poverty,” said Cortés. “Not to mention that 90 percent of those we place are retained in their employment as apprentices — therefore, contractors and trade unions are gaining a better quality applicant which is a better use of their training dollars.”

The longer-term economic benefits also are significant. “Our industry’s construction trades workforce is aging and there is a challenging skills gap in finding qualified replacements — and from a generation 40 percent smaller in numbers than the one retiring. The competition for talent across all industries is significant and ours faces image problems in the eyes of young people,” said Cortés. Building Futures designed The ARRA State Transportation Employment Program (STEP) as a comprehensive and interactive construction training and skills development program tailored to the requirements of RIDOT-related construction projects. Training includes hands-on experience and theory-based learning regarding many aspects of transportation related projects.

Officials Praise Working Program

“The FHWA is proud of the work that has been done through this partnership and pleased to provide financial support through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said Peter Osborn, the Rhode Island Division Administrator for FHWA. “In these tough economic times creative programs such as these are key to improving the economic conditions in Rhode Island and nationally. Building Futures and RIDOT are to be commended for training 55 minorities and women, diversifying our workforce, and preparing them for RIDOT-related construction jobs. That is a great return on our investment.”

“I commend Building Futures and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for implementing a successful work training program for women and minorities,” echoed U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. “STEP demonstrates how the federal government, with the help of state agencies working closely with community organizations, can not only improve Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, but also provide job seekers with the life-long skills they need to gain long-term employment.”

Having begun in October 2010, this training program continues through May 2012, and is on target to graduate 55 low-income minorities and women. As of December 2011, eight Building Futures graduates had already been placed on RIDOT job sites throughout the State, working on various bridges and roadways.

“RIDOT looks forward to placing more Building Futures graduates on projects throughout Rhode Island,” said RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis. “We always want to use the best trained workers and this program gives them the skills they need to get the job done.”

“The State Transportation Employment Program is a great example of what we can achieve when federal, state and community partners work together,” said Sen. Whitehouse. “I’m fighting hard to secure federal funding to help repair our crumbling roads and bridges, and this program will help ensure that we have an adequate workforce to meet our infrastructure needs.”

By offering continued support after employment, Building Futures has maintained a 90 percent retention rate of its graduates through the critical first year of their apprenticeship.

“I am pleased that this collaboration between RIDOT and Building Futures has been so successful in producing well trained and well prepared workers,” said Gov. Chafee. “This is a partnership that strengthens both our workforce and our important construction industry, and I look forward to its continued positive contributions to the Rhode Island economy."

“The skills gap has had a particularly significant impact on our state, preventing many individuals, especially those from underserved communities, from getting back to work,” said U.S. Congressman Langevin, who has taken a lead role on workforce development issues as co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus. “This partnership provides an excellent model by using Recovery Act funding to create employment opportunities and develop a qualified workforce to take advantage of them.”

To qualify for the program you have to be a resident of the Ocean State and make under $24,000 a year.

After the presentation and speeches, guests were taken on a tour of the 10,000 sq. ft. training facility, the highlight of which was an 80-ft. section of a model highway bridge being built by the current Building Futures class who also attended the event.

The $138 million in 2009 ARRA funds that Rhode Island received enabled RIDOT to increase the number of highway projects constructed from 2009-2010.

The OJT/SS program is available to contractors to ensure they can provide the critical on-the-job training needed for minorities and women to develop careers in the construction industry, positioning them to be a part of the economic recovery process and the transportation industry in general.

For more information, contact Andrew L. Cortés at acortes@provplan.org, or call 401-919-5919, ext. 207 or 401-241-9804.

Building Futures is located at 133 Delaine St., Providence, R.I. 02909 or go to www.bfri.org.