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New Lease on Life
Joe LaPlaca's students come from every walk of life.
The retired Rochester, N.Y., Local 86 member is a project coordinator at the City of Rochester's Office of Adult and Career Education Services program, which introduces unemployed adults to the construction and technical trades.
Some are recent immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Others were born and raised in Rochester's toughest neighborhoods, looking to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment that is all too prevalent in New York State's third-largest city.
But despite their many differences, the students — whose ages range from their early 20s to their late 50s — share one goal: to acquire the skills needed for a decent-paying career.
"Our students want to be here," says LaPlaca, who has been teaching at OACES for more than a year. "They are looking at getting into real work."
The program offers a mix of introductory trades' courses in carpentry, electrical and metalworking as well as English as a second language and GED preparation classes.
"Some of our students never finished high school or had a real job in their life," says LaPlaca. Others, he says, are highly educated in their home countries, but have to redo their entire education because their academic credentials aren't recognized in the U.S.
"I even had a couple of PhDs in their 50s who now have to start over in America from square one in terms of their careers," he says.
Running a classroom where more than 60 languages are spoken is one of LaPlaca's major challenges. "We've got people from Bhutan all the way to Cuba," he says, relying on a combination of pictures and body language to communicate.
The classroom isn't new to LaPlaca. A former apprenticeship instructor for Local 86, he spent years introducing high-school students to the construction trades at the Edison School of Applied Technology.
While the program has been in place for more than 20 years, it only recently introduced construction training to its curriculum. It has put more than 100 students through the program since it started last September, bringing non-traditional workers into the construction industry.
"I've had single mothers looking to be the first in their family to enter the work force bending conduit and welding," says LaPlaca.
Plans are in the works to incorporate renewable energy into the curriculum, including the basics of solar and wind power.
For Local 86 Business Manager David Young, the program is key to providing good job opportunities for Rochester residents long cut out of the job market.
"With an increasing number of project labor agreements focused on putting disadvantaged city residents to work, OACES is an important partner in creating good jobs and rebuilding our city," he says.
Rochester is slated for some major construction projects in the next couple years, including an ambitious school modernization program, and Young says LaPlaca's students will play an important role in these jobs. Most of Local 86's upcoming PLAs incorporate community benefit agreements, which means contractors are required to employ a certain percentage of city residents, minorities and women.
"It's about building an alliance between the building trades and the community in support of good jobs for Rochester residents," says Young. He says he hopes to bring on some students as construction electricians this summer as positions open up.
LaPlaca also talks up the IBEW to his students, taking them on field trips to Local 86's training center. The goal is to help some of them enter the apprenticeship once they get their GED.
"We're providing a new lease on life for our students," LaPlaca says. "We're telling people that welfare or a job at McDonald's aren't their only options."