June 2010

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New York High School Opens Up
Career Opportunities in Construction

Many IBEW members first found out about the trade through a relative who was a member—a parent, an uncle or a cousin. But for many students, particularly those growing up in poverty, a career in the building trades is rarely presented as an option.

But a group of inner-city public high school students in Rochester, N.Y., are getting a unique opportunity to get a head start on a career in the construction trades, thanks to the new "Get Ready For Life" program at the Edison School of Applied Technology.

Every day for the last school year, more than 20 students strapped on their safety helmets and steel-toe boots after finishing their morning classes and headed to a nearby worksite where they helped build a new 1,600-square-foot house, working side by side with experienced union craftsmen.

Helping to lead the project was Edison instructor Tom Waydelis. Assisting the students with the wiring were fellow instructors Joe LaPlaca and Jason Millington, who are also Local 86 members.

Local 86 Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee Coordinator Joe Intinni, along with Edison teachers Paul Healy and Phil Smith, also helped students plan the electrical installation at the house.

"The kids were required to put in real work, doing everything a regular apprentice is expected to do," LaPlaca said. "We wanted them to get a taste of what real construction is like."

But students got more than just a lesson in basic homebuilding—they learned the fundamentals of hard work and on-the-job etiquette. "All the students in the program have to be ready to take on a lot of responsibility," said Edison Principal Matt Laniak. Students are expected to keep up their grades, have no disciplinary problems and be at school every day. In return, they get a small stipend. "If they screw up, they don't get paid," he said.

Edison draws its student body largely from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city, with more than 70 percent of students living at or below the poverty line, says Laniak. More than 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

"None of these students can say I've got an uncle who's a carpenter or my dad is a plumber," Laniak said. "A lot of their caregivers are working two or three jobs at Wal-Mart or at Burger King."

Ken Warner, executive director of Unions and Businesses United in Construction, which provided seed money for the homebuilding project, says the program's goal is to combat unemployment among minority youth in the city. The joblessness rate for black males between the ages of 16-24 is approximately 30 percent—more than three times the rate of the rest of the population.

"We're letting students know that there are good-paying jobs out there," he said.

Vocational education has been stigmatized in last couple decades, as school administrators and elected officials emphasized college preparation over technical training, but Edison is providing an alternative career pathway for students that is garnering positive attention from parents, local leaders and educational experts.

The PBS show, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer featured the program, as did the American Teacher magazine.

"Not every kid is going to Harvard," Laniak said. "But when exposed to the benefits of going into the building trades, many say they are ready to put in the effort."

Laniak credits UNICON, the Workforce Development Institute—a statewide nonprofit that promotes job training—and the building trades, including Local 86, for helping to make the program a success.

His goal is to get at least two to three students from each class enrolled in a union apprenticeship. "These are jobs that can't be offshored," he said.

Warner says he sees the program as a breeding ground for a new generation of home-grown construction workers. The city is undertaking an ambitious 10-year school modernization program that will require tens of thousands of man-hours of work, and local officials want to make sure the labor force will represent the diversity of the city.

"These students will be the future work force for our contractors," he said.

LaPlaca, who is now retired from Edison, says the program is looking to double in size next year. The school has already purchased a vacant lot to begin construction on another house. The completed house recently sold for $100,000, which will help fund next year's program.

"It's great opportunity to get some really talented students into the IBEW," he said.

High school students from the Edison School of Applied Technology in Rochester, N.Y., helped build a house this year.