The Electrical Worker online
November 2012

Courage & Innovation Mean Growth
Ky. Building Trades, Civil Rights Activists Train Next Generation of Construction Workers

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It only took a couple years of college for 26-year-old Muhammad Al-Bilali to realize that spending four years racking up thousands of dollars in student loans wasn't for him.

"More than anything, I was looking for a skill," says the Louisville, Ky., resident. "I wasn't getting that in college." Moreover, he wasn't interested in running up debt only to end up like many others in his generation: stuck in a dead-end job he was overqualified for because it was the only work he could get. "I don't want to be in debt to somebody," he says. "And I have enough friends with master's degrees working as hostesses."

But job prospects for a young high-school graduate are pretty scarce, particularly in today's struggling economy. And for young African-Americans like Al-Bilali, the job picture is grimmer, with unemployment among African Americans under 29 more than triple the national rate.

Al-Bilali decided to leave the high rents and prices of New York City — where he went to high school — behind and moved back to his birthplace, Louisville, in hopes of finding work.

With Louisville being a major transit hub for the South, Al-Bilali found part-time work in the city's many warehouses. But none of those jobs offered much in terms of wages and benefits — the most he ever made was $11 an hour. None offered a path toward a real career or much of a shot at the middle class.

Still looking to turn his life around, he heard about a program called the Construction Pipeline from Anthony Mathis, a local contractor.

The program, a partnership between the Louisville Urban League and the Greater Louisville Building and Construction Trades Council, recruits local residents for an intensive 120-hour pre-apprenticeship training curriculum in the basics of construction.

Covering everything from blueprint reading and OSHA safety procedures to an overview of the different trades, the program was just what Al-Bilai was looking for.

"I had thought about construction before," he says, disclosing a lifelong interest in becoming an electrician. But he didn't know how to get into an apprenticeship.

"It wasn't anything I was familiar with," he says.

Al-Bilali followed up the program with a three-week electrician boot camp through pre-apprenticeship sponsor Louisville Local 369, which cemented his interest in becoming an electrical apprentice.

After working on a few sites as a construction electrician and completing the boot camp, he was accepted as an IBEW apprentice last summer and says he couldn't be happier.

"I feel like I'm working on a career," he says. "I'm doing interesting work that challenges me every day, while getting paid to learn." And with a nine-month-old daughter at home, the pay and benefits mean he can give his family a spot in the middle class.

"I'm only a first-year, so it's not like I'm making the big money," he says, "but I feel like I'm on my way to something good."

Building Inclusion

Al-Bilali's personal success story is only one of many made possible by the Construction Pipeline, which entered its fifth year in 2012.

The program has trained more than 250 candidates in the basics of construction, resulting in 111 job placements — including some of the biggest projects in the metro area.

And with a primary focus on recruiting local residents, minorities and women into the industry, the Construction Pipeline is ensuring large construction projects in the Louisville metro area benefit local residents, while cementing strong relations between the building trades and community and civil rights leaders, particularly in the city's African-American community.

"For a long time labor and the community were often at odds when it came to jobs," says Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Joe Wise. "With the Construction Pipeline, we're not fighting over jobs; we are allies in creating them."

For most big projects in Louisville, diversity in the work force is not an option.

The initial spark for the program was creation of the Louisville Arena Authority in 2005 to oversee the construction of KFC Yum! Center, which was one of the biggest projects to be built in the region in many years. The Louisville Metro City Council passed ambitious legislation to ensure arena construction jobs benefit the community as a whole.

Under the ordinance, any major city project financed with public funds must employ at least 20 percent minorities, 60 percent local residents and 5 percent women.

"Whenever there were construction projects built in this community, they were built primarily by a literally all-white work force, because traditionally they went outside the community, and sometimes outside the state to bring the work force here," Louisville Arena Authority Chairman Jim Host said in a promotional video produced by the Urban League.

More than 35 graduates from the first Construction Pipeline class were put to work on the $238 million arena, surpassing the diversity goals set by the city council. Some of the graduates worked as Local 369 construction electricians.

The program is financed through federal Workforce Investment Act dollars administered by KentuckianaWorks, a Louisville-area job development agency.

The Urban League and the Justice Resource Center did much of the recruiting, using community contacts to identify nontraditional workers who might be interested in the program.

"We've got single moms, young folks in their early 20s who haven't worked steadily since school, ex-offenders," says Wise, who estimates that the classes have been approximately 90 percent African-American.

"The reality is that we in the building trades and the IBEW haven't always done enough to make sure our work force represents the population in our community," says Local 369 Business Manager William Finn.

Going to work sites, Al-Bilali says he doesn't always meet people's stereotype of a construction worker. "I'm sometimes one of the only guys on the job who looks like me, and occasionally get some looks like 'what am I doing there?'"

But his age and background mean he gets lots of questions from members of his own age cohort about the trade and how he got into it. "A lot of young people don't have any firsthand experience with the building trades or construction, and hopefully I'm exposing them to opportunities they've never thought of."

A National Model

The Great Recession, which struck soon after the Construction Pipeline was launched, made it harder to place graduates in jobs, but Wise says the program is laying the foundation for a trained and diverse work force for when the economy picks up.

Supporters like to point to its statewide support, not only from business and labor, but from Republicans and Democrats as well. It was proposed by Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, but was continued by current Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

"Arena authority Chairman Jim Host wasn't initially the most favorable to unions, but through this project, he learned a lot about what we offer in terms of training," says Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Wise.

For Local 369 Joint Apprentice Training Committee Director Steve Willinghurst, the Construction Pipeline is a model for other IBEW locals facing the challenge of diversifying their membership.

"The increasing use of community workforce agreements, which mandate diversity on many projects, means that we need to start recruiting more minorities and more women if we want to compete and grow in many urban markets," he says.

But training programs like the Construction Pipeline aren't just about jobs for IBEW members, he says. It's also about building ties between labor and the broader community to create local coalitions to push for decent wages, good benefits and opportunity for all.

For Al-Bilali, the work of the Urban League and the Building Trades demystified the whole process of joining the trades. "There are a lot of people like me looking for an opportunity like this, but don't know how to go for it," he says.

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More than 30 graduates of a program to recruit nontraditional workers into the construction industry worked on the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville, Ky.

Photo credit: Linda Doane