With construction jobs coming, low-income workers get a head start on training

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
HOLYOKE — Last year, Miguel Vega and Rafy Gomez of Springfield were looking for good-paying, secure jobs. But pursuing careers in construction had never occurred to them.

“I had never been exposed to the idea of being in construction,” said Gomez, 29. “It seemed like that door was always closed to minorities.”

Then they heard at a career center that construction jobs were coming to the area — and a training program could get them to the front of the line.

Community Works, a grant-funded job training program in Amherst, offers a six-week pre-apprenticeship program to help low-income Springfield and Holyoke residents learn about the construction and building trades with the aim of getting them into competitive paid apprenticeships with construction unions.

After graduating from the program in December, Vega and Gomez had their first apprenticeship interviews last week. They are confident that, after proving themselves in the pre-apprenticeship program, there are jobs for them in the construction industry.

“I have no doubts I’m going to get in,” said Vega, 40.

The pre-apprenticeship program helps low-income people and underrepresented demographics, such as minorities and women, break into the industry, according to Pamela Howland, project director for Community Works.

She ran a Jan. 27 information session in which Vega and Gomez spoke about their experiences, held at CareerPoint in Holyoke. There were 23 people there, most were Latinos and eight were women, but they were told to expect about 200 to apply for the 20 places in the program.

At the session, Vega told his audience that the program is his ticket to a better life.

He said he was sick of working $9-per-hour jobs and needed a career. “I want to take my family out of poverty. I want to buy a house someday,” he told the group.

Gomez said he heard about the program at a career center while applying for unemployment. He had studied radiography at Springfield Technical Community College but had not found many job opportunities, he said.

The job opportunities people are searching for are in the construction and building industries, Howland told the group.

“I really feel like this is turning around, and this is your time,” she said. “You’ve got to be in those jobs.”

She said the projects that will create those jobs include, in Springfield, rebuilding Union Station and building a community center, a senior center. Construction on a new viaduct should start soon. MGM resorts, a co-sponsor of Community Works, has pledged that its proposed casino here will mean approximately 2,000 new jobs.

In Holyoke, a project to renovate the dilapidated Lyman Terrace public housing is planned.

But getting those jobs — specifically the better paid and more secure union jobs — is not easy. The union apprenticeship programs that generally precede acceptance into a union are highly competitive, and someone without training or experience is not likely to be selected.

During the next round of the six-week program, which starts in March, participants will learn about the work, from how to read blueprints to the tools of the trade, take field trips to construction sites, meet union leaders and get certifications necessary for union membership. Once they graduate, case managers will work with them for as long as it takes to secure interviews, apprenticeships, and permanent jobs.

Vega warned the group at the information session that the program, which meets five days a week from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is not easy, and said anyone who is not ready to show up early, put down their cellphone and work hard need not apply.

“It’s a hard six weeks but then you hit the jackpot,” Gomez said.

Vega said that through the pre-apprenticeship program, he learned how much unions want to diversify their membership and bring in younger workers. “They showed us how badly they want us,” he said.

The program is funded through August 2015 by Commonwealth Corp., a workforce development agency. Also supporting the project are local construction companies, unions, nonprofits, the UMass Labor/Management Workplace Education Program and MGM Resorts.

Applications for the next round are due Friday. Attending an information session is required, and the final information session takes place Wednesday at 3 p.m. at CareerPoint at 850 High St. in Holyoke.

For more information on the program, contact Howland at 545-1472 or howland@umass.edu or visit umass.edu/lmwep/sites/default/files/FAQcycleSpringfield%5B1%5D.pdf.