NEWARK – The 17 members of the first New Jersey graduating class of Laborers “Pathway to Apprenticeship” gritted it out down the stretch of their training this week over at TREC in the South Ward, where Mayor Ras Baraka showed up to rally them onto the next barricade.
These are the Building Trades trainees who made it out of a starting group of 30 people back in May.
On Thursday, the local has scheduled a graduation ceremony slated for 10 a.m.
A big deal?
You bet, it is, when you consider the fact that – with the exception of the Laborers – most of the ranks of Building Trades don’t employ too many African Americans in the very cities where a lot of the work gets done. Corporations build tax incentivized high rises with trades labor while African American neighborhoods lack shopping centers for basics – like food.
The Laborers, whose union helps employ the lion’s share of Black Building Trades workers in New Jersey, want to change that trend, and as the state stands poised for seven billion dollars in infrastructure dollars, they have stepped up efforts to train workers as part of their inaugural pre-apprenticeship program.
“They’re going to do very well in the industry,” Essex County Commissioner President Wayne Richardson, president of Local 55 said of this week’s graduates of the intensive five-week course. “They were very active in the class. They’ve been on time – not late . It says a lot about who they are. They are trying to get to that next level.”
On time, in these parts, isn’t actually on time, developer (and New Jersey Turnpike Authority Commissioner) Ralph Salermo reminded the students.
“On time is early,” said Salermo, a Cuban American who grew up in Elizabeth.
Richardson, standing at the head of the room with John Blyden, lead organizer for Laborers’ Eastern Region Organizing Fund (pictured, above, left, with Salermo), said their goal now is to land placement in actual apprenticeship programs for the graduates and accompanying jobs.
He won his first contest for mayor in 2014 with a promise to facilitate more job opportunities for Newark residents.
“Luck is preparedness plus opportunity,” Baraka said. “Opportunity is going to come. Our job at City Hall is to make sure opportunity comes very frequently. …We want to make sure people in the union look like the people in the city.”
Local 55 focuses on residential construction, but these graduates will have a chance to develop building skills to carry them into a booming area infrastructure market.
Baraka wanted to make sure the students don’t fail in their quest for union work.
He knows their road is difficult.
“I’m from Newark,” the mayor said. “I wasn’t brought here on a UFO. I know the trauma we dealt with.”
The workers and the leaders standing at the front of the room acknowledged the challenges posed by marijuana and drug use, starting with the fear of those who don’t believe they can even pass a drug test to get trained, let alone to convincingly occupy a work site.
But, Baraka added, “You can’t be ten minutes late. You gotta act like you want it. You’ve got to want to do this. Discipline. Self control. Don’t put your future in other people’s hands. Their assignment is to be a thorn in your side. You can’t allow that to disrupt your journey.”
Taking aim at intergenerational poverty, Laborers Local 55 started New Jersey’s Pathway to apprenticeship to facilitate a lifetime career course for Newark residents. The work becomes consuming, said Salermo – and ultimately overwhelms the need for controlled substances.
As part of the construction trade pathway workshop, each person who survived the interview process (and drug test) received a weekly stipend of $200 as they fulfilled the pre-apprenticeship course in anticipation of the formal Pathway to Apprenticeship (P2A).
Following this Thursday’s graduation at TREC, Richardson said he hopes to assemble the next group for another five-week course in October.