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March 2018

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'Building Futures' Offers Second Shot at Life

The U.S. economy has been on the upswing for years. But finding a solid middle-class job can still be a struggle for some, especially for someone who has spent time behind bars.

But Kenneth Davis found help — and success — landing good union-represented work, in part because of the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO Council's Building Futures program, which offers free training and certification to ex-offenders like him, as well as to military veterans and low-income men and women interested in pursuing careers in the building trades.

"It's a great program for people who don't know anything about construction," said Davis, a D.C.-area native and former prison inmate who is now a residential wireman apprentice at Washington Local 26.

Davis, who spoke about his positive experiences with the program to a recent Building Futures class, said he already had an interest in electrical work when a friend talked to him about the program.

For nearly 10 years, Building Futures has worked to train, certify and place participants in the electrical and construction industry in Washington and in the city's close-in Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

"Think of it like 'Construction for Dummies,'" Davis said. "It gives you a good rundown of all that's involved."

Building Futures instructors cover a wide variety of topics from construction math to blueprint reading to job readiness, and they work with building and construction industry leaders to help graduates gain apprenticeships and entry-level positions. Course participants also can earn certifications in areas such as flagger safety and OSHA compliance. They are coached on how to write effective resumes and how to conduct themselves during job interviews, and they visit job sites and hear from representatives of a number of construction trade organizations and unions.

A 2014 Arizona State University survey of hiring managers showed that job applicants with criminal histories tend to be among the least likely to be hired, but more recent studies by Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins Hospital separately found evidence suggesting that ex-offenders tend to stay employed longer than their record-free counterparts.

Research by the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank showed the benefits of steady work to former inmates, determining that the sooner ex-offenders found work, the lower the likelihood that they might wind up doing something that landed them back in jail.

The 30-year-old Davis graduated from Building Futures in December of 2016; within two weeks, an opportunity opened up for him to join Local 26 as a residential class apprentice and to work on a new mixed-use commercial/residential project on southwest Washington's waterfront.

"I heard so many good things about the IBEW that joining it was an easy decision," he said. "Since I joined the union, I have had no bad days."

More recently, Davis has been working with an electrical contractor on a new 31-story office building in nearby Tysons Corner, Va.

The free, six-week Building Futures program, offered four times a year, is open to qualified candidates who have either a high school or general equivalency diploma. Program organizers say it has an 80 percent placement rate.

"Participants like Kenneth succeed because of their own drive and the intensive case management they receive in Building Futures," said the AFL-CIO's Sonte DuCote.

This program is made possible largely through funds provided by the Department of Labor's Green Jobs Innovation Fund and other local supporters. Visit to learn more.


Washington Local 26's Kenneth Davis talks to a Building Futures class about his own success with the program.

Union-Made New Year's Gift
Will Play in Peoria for Years to Come

On the coldest New Year's Eve in the history of Peoria, Ill., members of Local 34 gave residents a dazzling reason to brave the weather.

The city's annual winter festival became a smaller, but no less enthusiastic, version of New York's Times Square as a giant ball bursting with more than 2,000 points of light descended 130 feet from a crane, first at 7 p.m. so that youngsters could enjoy it and again at midnight for celebrating adults.

Those were proud moments for Local 34 and its apprentices, who configured the lighting design and brought it to life — even building a 225-foot, three-phase custom extension cord

"It was really cool to see it lit up in the night sky, with kids ice-skating below, and to know that with short notice we were able to pull it off," Local 34 Business Manager Paul Flynn said. "That's what unions do. We come together and meet deadlines with any sort of resources we have."

The 6-foot-wide, 1,550-pound stainless steel ball was a union project start to finish. And a rapid one, as Flynn indicated. "It was August or September when our civic center approached us and asked if we wanted to be a sponsor," he said. "The building trades thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase our talents. But we had to scramble."

Local 34 is part of a Peoria labor-management coalition known as Better Built — the Union Construction Network. The IBEW, Sheet Metal Workers and Operating Engineers — who ran the crane — were involved directly while other trade unions contributed money and supplies. Employers did as well, Flynn said, thanking signatory contractors Kaiser Electric for help with the LED lighting plan and Oberlander Electric for donating materials, rigging equipment and manpower.

"Absolutely a cooperative effort," Flynn said. "It really was a fun project, even though we ran into a few problems and had to do some redesign."

It was so cooperative, in fact, that Peoria Civic Center staff told Flynn they'd never had a partnership work out so well. "They said they usually end up doing all the work, but 'you guys just took off with it and made sure it was on time and safe,'" he said.

The Sheet Metal Workers designed and welded the ball, taking inspiration from New York and several small Midwestern cities that have fashioned their own ball drops. Then, with barely a month to go, it was IBEW's turn.

The lighting design was a challenge, as was the cost. Flynn said the fixture they originally wanted was priced at an impossible $34,000. But Kaiser tracked one down for $3,000 and the civic center paid the tab.

IBEW apprentices, under the tutelage of Local 34 instructors and Training Director Brandon Currie, figured out how to install, wire and power the fixture, which had 220 LEDs, each with 10 points of light. "It's the best hands-on training an apprentice can get," Flynn said.

The ball is being stored at the local's training center and will continue to be a teaching tool. Being rust-proof, it can be reused indefinitely, allowing future apprentices to design, install and program new lighting.

A trial run the week before Christmas confirmed the crane could lift the ball and lower it in a 59-second countdown. Although the crane rental site didn't have a strong enough power source to illuminate the ball, Flynn said the lights had been tested throughout the building process and worked perfectly.

But to see their creation light up the night sky, IBEW members had to wait with other hardy souls on a New Year's Eve when the wind chill hit minus 30. Asked by the Peoria Journal Star if it was worth the frigid wait, one beaming family said, "Yes," without hesitation.

A civic center spokeswoman told the newspaper that while the bitter cold kept some people away, the unions gave the city a gift that area residents will enjoy for many years to come.

"It was really important to still have the ball drop even though it was very cold," Megan Pedigo said. "The men and women of the union construction network put a lot of hours into this ball. It's beautiful. The tradition starts now."


Local 34 Training Director Brandon Currie, whose apprentices configured and installed the lights on Peoria's New Year's Eve ball, talks about the project with Clare Zell of the Peoria Civic Center on Facebook Live.