• Construction’s costly decision

    by David Thigpen

    Published in the Chicago Defender on March 3, 2010

    David ThigpenThe closing of Chicago-area building trade union apprenticeship programs is a major setback for jobless adults enrolled in programs to help them get into the unions. But the inability of new workers to get jobs could wind up hurting contractors across the region if insufficient numbers of minorities and women are in the pipeline to meet government participation requirements.

    There are two ways to look at the unions' decision to stop taking in new apprentices: Supply and demand. The government requires 19.6 percent minority and 6.9 percent participation by women on federally funded projects. In the last 10 years, participation by African Americans in nearly every union has declined. From 2001 to 2005 less than 3 percent of apprentices in northeastern Illinois were women. Latinos have made strides in the lower-paying unions, but are poorly represented in higher paying ones such as the electricians and plumbers, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the City Colleges of Chicago.

    In January, the bricklayers, cement pourers, drywall finishers and carpenters became the latest to suspend programs, darkening the hopes of 52 adults who have come more than halfway through a 28-week training program at Dawson Technical Institute.

    Pre2, as the program is known, sponsored by the Chicago Urban League, is funded with state and federal grants and includes both classroom and hands-on training. Another 58 applicants are preparing to begin their training. Pre2 is viewed by participants as a clear pathway to a job. Now, with entry into the unions blocked, the students will need a Plan B.

    For African Americans and women, entry into the construction trade unions has historically been blocked by factors that have included racism, nepotism, and hostile work environments. But the closing of apprenticeships and the shrinking legacy of Blacks working in construction threatens to hasten their near extinction from the trades.

    “When I'm driving past a construction site, do I see my skin color? Maybe three or four,” said Rondale Williams, 35, a father of two who is enrolled in Pre2. “A lot of Blacks weren't interested in going into that kind of work. So I'm not knocking the unions. We shut ourselves out of a lot of things.”

    Williams vowed to complete the program but is frustrated by his now bleak prospects. “I went to school for this and I still can't get in?” Williams said. “Does that mean I'm going to be sitting on the sidelines again?”

    Paying upwards of $70,000 a year, construction jobs are some of the highest-paid in the country not requiring a college degree. Construction work, however, isn't for the faint of heart. It's back-breaking, dangerous and uncertain, known for long periods of layoffs.

    The apprenticeship closings aren't surprising in an industry that has been marked by steep decline in the last 10 years. There are a lot of journey workers unemployed, too. But these high-paying union jobs are worth fighting for. The industry will eventually recover. But with fewer minorities and women in the pipeline, and the U.S. Department of Labor more strictly enforcing participation rules, the region's ability to compete for government contracts is in danger.
    “How are you going to continue to do these projects? They are either going to get fined or shut down,” said Cheryl Freeman-Smith, director of workforce development for the Chicago Urban League. “We got federal support to get more Blacks into the union. That is the whole point of this Pre2 program. We're concerned because in an industry that has long had trouble meeting its requirements, closing the unions is going to compromise a lot of the work that's being done.”

    Ironically, just four years ago, builders and construction trade unions were bracing for a wave of retirements they said threatened their ability to maintain a skilled workforce.

    The Builders Association got on board to sponsor more minorities into the union apprenticeship programs, but the number of African Americans getting in remained at a trickle.

    Freeman-Smith said she will continue to work to get people employed with builders participating in the Urban League's Contractor Development Program. But alternatives to a total apprenticeship shutdown must be considered to maintain the industry's workforce diversity if Chicago's construction sector is to make a true and lasting recovery.

    David Thigpen is vice president of policy and research at the Chicago Urban League.