Latino Construction Program Preps Workers to Meet Demand

Crain's Cleveland Business' government reporter, Jay Miller.

A tightening labor market for construction workers, building plans on MetroHealth's main campus on the West Side and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's push to have the diversity of the city's population reflected in its employment are the forces behind a program to enlist more members of the area's Hispanic community in the construction trades.

The Spanish-American Committee's (SAC) Latino Construction Program is a pre-apprenticeship program that already has helped about 40 Hispanic-American West Siders find apprentice jobs in the construction trades. Ramonita Vargas, executive director of SAC, said many are recent refugees from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico who worked in construction there but need to improve their skills to enter the trades in Cleveland.

The program is being sponsored and supported by Turner Construction Co., the construction manager for the planned $946 million, 10-story hospital at MetroHealth; the Cleveland Building & Construction Trades Council; the KeyBank Foundation and the Higley Fund.

A groundbreaking for the hospital is scheduled for April 15, with construction completed by 2022. MetroHealth has made a commitment that the transformation will have more than 30% of the workforce led by local and minority businesses. Cliff Kazmierczak, a vice president and project executive at Turner Construction, said employment on the site will have its ups and downs during the various phases of construction, but peak employment will be 550 to 650 workers.

The pre-apprenticeship program's first class graduated in May 2018, and the second class did so the following November. A third class is set to begin later in April. Of the 50 people in the first two classes, more than 40 have been accepted into apprenticeship programs, said Kenny Torres, the program's manager at SAC. Some, who worked in construction in Latin America, have started as second-year apprentices.

Torres said the SAC's six-week program offers an explanation of the local construction industry and the union structure, education on the difference between working in construction in Latin America and Cleveland, as well as discussions about on-the-job safety, in particular the requirements of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Most of those taking the classes are underemployed rather than unemployed, and many are construction workers who fled Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in September 2017.

"They've been very successful. I think they are doing it right," said David Wondolowski, executive secretary of the Cleveland Building Trades Council. "We've had a lot of people come on, and we've had very few fall off. They've stuck with our apprenticeship programs and are doing very well."

Wondolowski told Crain's in February that while he believes the trade unions will be able to meet the regional demand for construction workers for the next year or two, the aging trade workforce might not meet demand if the construction business remains strong. He said some union apprenticeship programs are starting without full student rosters.

Workers who are hired as trade apprentices earn about $15 to $16 an hour for the three to five years before they reach journeyman status, Wondolowski said. The council has 27 union locals, representing 22 trades among its members, from plumbers to tile layers to elevator construction workers.

Jason Jones, vice president of Turner Construction and general manager of its Cleveland office, welcomes the program. "The reality is, the building trades need more workforce," he said. "We crave workers."

Glen Shumate, executive vice president of the Construction Employers Association, whose members hire union tradespeople, added that the program helps meet the goals set by the Jackson administration, and agreed to by a number of leading employers, including MetroHealth, to make community benefits a priority. Under this Community Benefits Agreement, the businesses and organizations pledged to work to increase their hiring of local workers; use small, minority and women-owned Cleveland businesses; and report their success at meeting these workplace goals.

"The mayor's community benefit agreement created a framework that said, 'We've got to be inclusive and reach out,' " Shumate said. "Efforts like this one (from the SAC) are in line with both the demands of the industry for workers and the expectation of Mayor Jackson saying, 'We've got to create a culture of how Cleveland can be inclusive.' "

Torres said carpentry has attracted the most graduates, and others have moved into electrician or general labor apprenticeships.

While most class members, especially those who worked in construction in Puerto Rico, understand English, the SAC has teamed up with an English-as-a-second-language program to help them improve their understanding of construction industry terminology in English.

"In Puerto Rico, people take English courses in school so they are already exposed to the language. You just have to get them in the habit of practicing and hearing it," Torres said. "We find out they know a lot more than they think they do, especially when you start talking about salary — then they get it."

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