With the Tappan Zee Bridge Construction Opportunity is Knocking

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Will someone build a door so we can answer it?

The danger that unemployment among unskilled workers becomes chronic is here. Now projects around New York City like the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hempstead Revitalization Project create an opportunity to change things. The Association of General Contractors (AGC) recently released a study acknowledging that 74% of General Contractor’s report difficulty attracting enough workers in the skilled trades, and this presents an opportunity to bolster training and apprenticeship programs to help meet demand and decrease unemployment.

Professor Roland Aragon demonstrates plumbing techniques taught at the Oriska Jobs and Careers Center to Reverend Benjamin.

Professor Roland Aragon demonstrates plumbing techniques taught at the Oriska Jobs and Careers Center to Reverend Benjamin.

Apprenticeship and training programs, like those offered at the Maritime College in the Bronx by Oriska Jobs and Careers Center, offer a perfect bridge for unskilled workers to enter a profession in the skilled trades. For over two decades, the Oriska program has helped transform the lives of many disadvantaged workers, setting them on the path towards self sufficiency and independence.

The AGC has noted that among the skilled trades, that contractors named laborers, carpenters, equipment operators, cement masons pipefitters and welders as the most difficult positions to fill. These are skills that have lifted previous generations out of poverty and into the middle class. These are critical skills upon which society relies and according to Edward E. Gordon, author of “Future Jobs: Solving the Employment and Skills Crisis,” we “will lose one million construction workers while another million jobs will be created, requiring two million new craft workers.”

Pockets of hope are materializing. Projects like the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge are large scale public works projects which provide mandates to hire a certain percentage of minority workers. Suddenly the apprenticeships associated with these projects become springboards to marketable skills and gainful employment. Unemployed workers from disadvantaged communities get training for a life skill while being a paid apprentice.  Linked with a proven training program, the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction becomes the perfect vehicle for ending chronic unemployment.

In Hempstead, Long Island, a local leader, Reverend Reginald Benjamin, has further bolstered his commitment to finding jobs for his disadvantaged congregation. Reverend Benjamin is partnering with the Oriska Jobs and Careers Center to bring an apprenticeship and training program to Hempstead.  Nassau County is also rebuilding the Coliseum where the NY Islanders play, therefore construction jobs will be abundant.

The challenge has been that workers from disadvantaged communities often didn’t have the skills to benefit from these opportunities, but by ramping up apprenticeship and training programs, this will change. The fact that there is a great demand for skilled workers and little supply means that these programs will have a more pronounced effect and help many disadvantaged families climb the socio-economic ladder into the middle class.

The construction boom in the New York Metropolitan area creates a true opportunity to rebuild our middle class. People like Reverend Benjamin see opportunity and are acting on it. This is a chance not only to bring more disadvantaged workers into the skilled trades, but to inspire more minority contractors to bid on these public works projects. With minority contractors gaining access to skilled workers, Reverend Benjamin is working to help them secure the surety bonds needed for them to qualify for the bidding process.

Opportunities to stem the tide of chronic unemployment are finally presenting themselves. These opportunities are not services jobs in fast food chains, but rather the type of substantial prevailing wage jobs that lifted our grandparents out of poverty and helped create the most dynamic and influential middle class in history. Throughout history it has always been those individuals who started as apprentices, graduated to skilled workers and on occasion went on to become entrepreneurs that have shaped our economy. Opportunity favors the prepared, so as opportunity knocks again let’s have the programs in place so workers and society may benefit.

Jim Kernan is the Executive Director of the non-profit employment development agencies, Oriska Jobs and Careers Center and Economic Cornerstone, and a director of United Services Administration.