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Update: Session 1 Of St. Louis Building Trade Diversity Effort Complete

Five of the original 12 participants in the first session of BUD listen intently to their instructor on the first day of training October 6, 2014.
Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio

The first session of the Building Union Diversity, or BUD, initiative has finished. It’s a new effort to increase diversity in St. Louis building and construction unions. Program organizers say efforts are now underway to connect participants to employers.

The initiative is an eight-week pre-apprenticeship program organized by seven St. Louis unions, with funding and recruitment provided by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment.

When the first twelve participants began the program in October, they were promised the opportunity to interview for jobs if they attended every day of training.

According to BUD program administrator Jim Duane, union leaders are currently working to make good on that promise for the nine participants who completed the training.

“We’ve definitely given everybody’s names out,” Duane said. “How many of them were finally contacted—that’s part of our follow-up process, trying to get a hold of people and see (if they) have had their interviews yet.”

So far, Duane has confirmed that two have started work—one as a laborer and one as a pipefitter.

Although the original plan was for BUD training to last eight weeks, the first session was cut short two weeks in order to end on schedule after a late start. Duane said the program finished early in part because they thought construction projects were starting at that time, giving BUD participants an opportunity to get hired.

But that turned out not to be the case.

“Some of the projects that we thought were going to be starting in mid-November were I guess delayed a little bit and they’re not exactly starting, but some of the contractors are bringing people on,” Duane said, adding that the needs of contractors dictate hiring.

“None of the trades really can hire anybody. They’re like talent brokers basically, and so what we’ve been trying to do is get to the contractors and owners to actually look at interviewing people,” he explained.

Duane said recruitment for the next training session is underway, although the start date for the new eight-week session has not yet been set. He said organizers are tentatively looking at February, with an eye for a change in the weather and a corresponding uptick in construction projects.

Original post dated Tuesday October 7, 2014.

St. Louis resident Lisa Ramsay is taking part in the Building Union Diversity initiative, which seeks to bring minorities and women into the trades.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis resident Lisa Ramsay is taking part in the Building Union Diversity initiative, which seeks to bring minorities and women into the trades.

Lisa Ramsay spent most of her professional career in office jobs. But after awhile, she wanted to get hands a little dirty.

“And I thought to myself, I’ve been in the Air Force for seven and a half years years. I did paperwork all my life. Office jobs, all my life,” Ramsay said. “I wanted something different. Something challenging that was also going to pay me more money at the same time.”

So, Ramsay signed up to join the Building Union Diversity initiative, which seeks to bring more minorities and African-Americans into the trades. It uses about $100,000 of local and federal funds to help African-Americans like Ramsay get full-time union jobs.

The initiative works like this: Anybody who’s interested in the program goes to the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment. After getting assessed on things like math and reading ability, they’ll then go through an interview process to get into a class of about 15 people. If a person finishes the eight-week program, they’ll get an interview for a full-time union job.

St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council secretary-treasurer Jeff Aboussie said the program is coming along as the region’s construction industry improves from the Great Recession. He said leaders of public and private projects want their workforces to be more diverse.

“Rather than say that we’re not inclusive or that we don’t allow people into the trade, I think a more fair statement would be to say ‘Hey, there’s certain things that are demanded by individuals to get in,’” Aboussie said. “And there is a certain amount of math and reading and technology skills that are needed to succeed and make a career out of the business.”

LIUNA’s Gary Elliott told reporters that the program “is about an opportunity for people that never before had the opportunity.”

“Did our organizations fail in doing that? You’re damn right we did,” Elliott said. “And we’re willing to face that now and face up to what we mean to this community and what it means to us. And that is giving opportunity for people who want to work and who can be taught certain skills.”

The program is startup up after a contentious fight occurred at the St. Louis County Council over minority hiring goals for county contracts.During that debate, African-American political leaders – including St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City – contended unions were hostile to minorities and women.

When asked about that perception, Elliott said: “The dots were not getting connected.”  

Both St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger were on hand for the press conference Oct. 7 announcing the program's launch.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Both St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger were on hand for the press conference announcing the program's launch.

“People did not know who to talk to, they did not know what vehicle to take to get to where they wanted to go,” Elliott said. “You go downtown to catch a bus, you’ve got to know the schedule and you’ve got to know the route before it’s going to take you to where you want to go. That’s just like this: In the industry, it’s who’s going to hire you, when are they hiring, what projects do they hire, what do you have to know to be hired. That’s what’s coming forth now.”

For her part, Lisa Ramsay said she hopes the program goes a long way toward altering the perception that unions aren’t welcoming to minorities and women. She’s hoping to prove that by completing the program and potentially being hired as a carpenter.

“I think it’s a good start in the right direction,” she said. “What is really going to happen? Who knows. But I think this is a good step in the right direction and, I mean, we can only hope and pray that is something that will take us to the next level.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.