© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New program offers job and life skills to minorities and women

BJC Healthcare is in middle of a large construction project employing a lot of workers.
file photo | Provided by BJC HealthCare

Unemployed minorities and females looking to enter the construction industry in the St. Louis region now have a new training option.

MOKAN Construction Contractors Assistance Center announced Monday that an eight-week course, Construction Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Program, will teach classes of 25 people. The program doesn’t just offer job training, though. Students will also receive remedial education, financial guidance, and career preparation. They’ll also learn skills for coping with hours, responsibilities, and potentially being the only minority or female in their workplace.

Credit Katelyn Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Yaphett El-Amin, executive director of MOKAN, announces the pre-apprenticeship program.

At a press conference, Executive Director Yaphett El-Amin said that the program is designed to address contractors’ claims that they don’t hire minorities and women because the applicants are unqualified.

El-Amin said that this program will produce those qualified applicants, giving people second chances and changing lives.

“You don’t hear about people who are at work committing crimes. You hear about crimes being committed by people who don’t have work opportunities,” El-Amin said. “So we want to take those same people, bring them into our program, help to strengthen them ethically, help them strengthen their workplace skills. Then bring them back and present them to the industry.”

Speakers at MOKAN’s press conference stressed that the construction industry lacks diversity. A diversity study released in 2012 supports their claims. It recommends making pre-apprenticeship programs more accessible.

Mayor Francis Slay said he has signed several measures to increase diversity in construction work forces. Based on an executive order he proposed, a city ordinance was passed. The ordinance ensures that St. Louis City construction project labor is performed 25 percent by minorities, 5 percent by women, 15 percent by apprentices, and 20 percent by city residents.

“We want to make sure that workforce is as diverse as the community that we live in,” said Slay.

However, many contractors have not yet met these goals. El-Amin said that MOKAN’s program should help employers meet those hiring requirements.

“We believe that it makes sense economically for our community, it makes sense as far as reducing crime, to help strengthen job opportunities for the people who live here,” said El-Amin.

The state of training in St. Louis

Currently, Building Union Diversity is the other major pre-apprenticeship program that attempts to address these issues by training minorities and women for construction jobs around St. Louis. There are numerous differences between the two programs.

While BUD is union-sponsored, MOKAN’s program is community-based. MOKAN, unlike most non-union programs, has been certified by the Department of Labor—which means it’s held to higher standards than most non-union pre-apprenticeship courses.

MOKAN’s remedial training, which addresses trainees’ potential deficits’ in math and literary skills necessary to succeed in their chosen field.

El-Amin also said that the program will offer drug counseling, which is rare. BUD requires trainees to pass a drug test prior to admittance to the program. MOKAN, on the other hand, tests trainees throughout the program. By providing resources like counseling throughout the program, MOKAN will ensure that graduates can pass their drug test and get hired. This makes MOKAN’s program more accessible.

Michael Holmes works with programs like these through St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, a department of the city government that tries to improve employment options in the region. He said that there’s much need for qualified minority and women employees, and for that reason, the government considers it important to support both programs.

“We need more programs like this to build capacity,” said Holmes. “Because if people are really interested in construction, they need to go through some sort of formal training.”

This training process includes many hurdles, including formal testing. Holmes said that programs like BUD and MOKAN will help people prepare to face these hurdles.

The student perspective

Narayan Hill is unemployed. He has a family – and five kids – to support. As a student of MOKAN's first class, he’s getting a chance to become a carpenter – an option that wouldn’t otherwise be available to him.

“Yeah, I probably could get the skills in college where I’d have to pay $30 thousand, $40 thousand for an education,” said Hill. “But this program they just offer it up for free. All you got to do is participate, be on time, you know. And they just gonna give it to you.”

He’s decided to wait until finishing MOKAN’s program before he applies to a job because he said he thinks it will give him better options.

Leron Williams, another future MOKAN student, is just grateful that he’s getting to participate. “There’s a lot of people I heard that are trying to get in. There’s a lot of people I heard that need help.”

Right now, Williams cuts hair. But he said he’d be able to take better care of his family if he can start working as an electrician, too.

“It will help tremendously because they are providing me with the skills, the education, the know-how of getting a job, and going forward in life and build your own future,” said Williams. “I think this is a real good program for people just trying to advance themselves and do something better with their lives.”

Both hope that completing this program will help them get jobs.

If MOKAN’s program follows BUD’s success rate, that might happen. So far, BUD has trained one class. Of the nine individuals who completed the course, eight now have full-time jobs, said Slay.

These issues aren’t isolated.

“We can’t continue to look at our community in a post-Michael Brown era and not get active,” said El-Amin. She said that MOKAN is challenging its public and private partners to hire minorities and women, reverse the racial disparities in the region, and rebuild communities that have suffered in recent years.  

Why “post-Michael Brown”? Just after his death, Michal Brown was scheduled to start college in an HVAC program. El-Amin explained that this degree that would put him in fields like those sought by Williams and Hill. But, given the state of the industry, she questions whether or not that would have helped him.

“Where would he have worked?” El-Amin said. “When the industry is less than 8 percent minorities and 2 percent females, would he have had a job?”

El-Amin said that this program and the changes it encourages will help people like Michael Brown and better the region.

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.