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Unlevel foundation: Disappointing gamble

Every Saturday, for 20 weeks, 46 men and women reported to the Physical Plant Service Building on the University of Illinois campus at 7:30 a.m. and worked until 3:30 p.m.

Some stayed afterwards to continue working; a few even showed up early for the same reason. Most had other jobs elsewhere, and families, so working all those Saturdays, for free, wasn't just a sacrifice but also a gamble.

They did it because they hoped to be construction workers, and this program, the Construction Trades Opportunities Program, or CTOP, was designed to boost their chances.

It was one of several efforts locally to address the racial disparity in the construction industry. Another program at the U of I similar to CTOP focused on minority architecture and engineering firms. Parkland College also has program "“ Partnerships for Careers and Success for the Education that provides high school students with a hands-on introduction to construction trades during a four-week long course in the summer.


So far, these programs claim limited success.

Six CTOP graduates applied to the Champaign County electricians union, passed the written exam and went through the union's interview process. One of the six CTOP graduates had completed Parkland's air conditioning certification program; another had three years of college education plus more than 4,000 hours of on-the-job training as an electrician (see Soundslide story). Yet none of the six were accepted as apprentices.

CTOP, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development, was designed to prepare minorities and women to apply for construction trade union apprenticeship programs.

It drew more than 200 applicants, all of whom were willing and able to abide by industry standard requirements for union membership "“ a high school diploma or a General Equivalency Diploma, a valid driver's license, a clean drug test and proof of U.S. citizenship. Sixty-four were accepted into the program, and some dropped out along the way due primarily to time constraints.

In March, 44 African-American men and women, one Hispanic man and one white woman graduated from the program.

Otis Noble III, who managed the program, started the course by giving a written test designed to approximate the kind of reading and math exams that a handful of the local trade unions use. Noble said more than half of the CTOP class passed.

But all unions require also an interview, in which an applicant faces a six-member panel (typically three union stewards and three contractors), so CTOP participants practiced interviewing skills.

"It can be a tad bit intimidating, especially if you've not had any formal training as it relates to interviewing," Noble said.

The participants also got hands-on training with various construction tools. Noble applied for a grant to repeat this program for a new batch of minority workers, but recently learned the grant proposal had been rejected.

The Parkland program, now in its third year, was the brainchild of the East Central Illinois Construction Education Task Force, a partnership involving several area schools, colleges, government agencies, and the union trades council.

It's an attempt to replace those missing "shop classes" that disappeared from local high school curriculums, by providing an intensive summer school course followed by dual-credit courses that high school students can take during the school year. The summer course always includes an actual construction project in the community.

Minorities and female students are given preference for enrollment, and so far, each summer's class has been predominantly minority, said Lorie McDonald, who coordinates the program.

"Just from talking to people who have been in the trades for years and years who are not minorities, [they] will tell you that the door was not open to minorities or women, at all," McDonald said. "I think it's cracking open now, so we're trying to do our best to widen that gap and open the door completely."

Both programs have been hurt by the economic downturn.

Many of the trade unions didn't hire any new apprentices during the past year, because there wasn't enough work to keep their current members employed. Parkland's summer program, which includes a monetary stipend, has had to scale down its capacity from 17 students to just 12.

Noble blames the economy, in part, for CTOP's disappointing results.

"In a better economic climate, I think this program would've been over the top, but I think in bad economic times, the people at the bottom get hit harder regardless of their training or education," he said. "With the excuse of bad economic times, they become the people who are expendable. That's the unfortunate part about being disadvantaged in this country.

McDonald, though, remains optimistic, especially for minorities and women, citing statistics that anticipate a need for 180,000 new employees in the construction industry every year.

"You make a great living, you can help support a family on this, and they make great pensions and retirements. It can be a very high-paying field to get into," she said. "It's also one of the fields where you can end up owning your own business. You have a better chance of doing that in the construction industry than any."


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