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Building Boston: Boston contractors, locals use programs to recruit women, minorities into the trade

Across the country, SMACNA and SMART are heeding the need for recruitment efforts, finding creative solutions to labor needs, and developing robust programs that reach women, minorities, and those in urban areas—offering opportunities for a career and a new life.

Jim Morgan, president of Worcester Air Conditioning, serves as the president of Boston-area SMACNA and as a Local 17 JATC trustee, and is keenly aware of the needs of the training center and those of contractors.

“The Boston-area sheet metal contractors have been working hard to boost women and minorities in the trade,” he says. “[Training director] John Healy has been instrumental in reaching out to find pools of candidates. As a contractor, we have found Building Pathways an excellent vehicle to bring those raised in an urban environment into the trades, especially women and minorities.”

The first pre-apprenticeship building trades program in Boston, Building Pathways was created by current Boston Mayor Marty Walsh when he was president of the Boston Building Trades Association. To date, more than 300 low income minorities and women from the metropolitan Boston area have participated in the program.

The Building Pathways Building Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Program began in 2011 by the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District (MetroBTC) to course correct inequalities in apprenticeship for women, people of color, and others in under-served communities. In 2015, this led to the formation of Building Pathways, Inc., a nonprofit organization, which now operates the pre-apprenticeship program.

At its core, it is a six-week pre-apprenticeship program that allows students to explore 15 different building trades, choosing one at the end in which to proceed into an apprenticeship and hopefully begin a career.

Shamaiah Turner, now a journeyperson, chose sheet metal and entered Local 17’s apprentice program through Building Pathways, graduating in 2017. “One of their stars,” says Healy, Turner continues to work to recruit on behalf of the career she loves.

“You’re learning new things, but you’re also setting up your life,” she says. “Sometimes [college] doesn’t work out. I have friends who graduated and still don’t have jobs. I have a job. I have a career.”

Healy estimates this year 100 apprentices will enter building trades apprenticeships from Building Pathways.

“Building Pathways has been great,” says Healy. “It’s the premier building trades pre-apprenticeship program. They’ve been some of our best apprentices. I think they appreciate the wage, good benefits, the income. It lifts them up out of whatever situation they’re in.”

Local 17 also utilizes Operation Exit, a program sponsored by the Boston mayor’s office aimed at exposing youth in crisis to the building trades. Young men and women, typically ages 18 to 30, enter the three-week program housed at Local 17 to learn about 15 different trades. Over the course of the program, participants visit the training centers of those trades and choose one at the end. The trade then provides participants direct entry into the first year of apprenticeship.

In the current class of 12, Healy will welcome two apprentices from the program when school begins later this year.

Unlike Building Pathways, Operation Exit is a ticket off the streets, away from the violence and gang activity that has become commonplace. Students entering the program are expected to work, show up on time, and save their own lives by starting a career and leaving their past behind.

“They appreciate the change, and the program likely saved their lives,” says Healy.

Building Pathways and Operation Exit are only two programs aimed at pairing the building trades and Boston’s most at-risk youth. Youth Build Boston hires participants to build homes for low-income families. Approximately 12 apprentices since the program’s inception in 2006 have entered Local 17’s apprenticeship program.

Although Worcester Air participates in all these programs by hiring apprentices and graduates, five years ago Morgan developed a relationship with the Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School to train sheet metal and drafting students in building information modeling (BIM) and Auto CAD.

The main idea is to identify those who will be good sheet metal workers as well as drafts people, so they can enter the apprenticeship program directly after high school graduation. While at Worcester Air, students work in the shop and behind the computer to become well-rounded.

“Sheet metal is the only trade I know of that uses union draftsmen,” says Morgan. “I think it’s an effort that could be practiced at many high schools. Students want high-paying jobs. The union is a good place for that.”

The five-year-old relationship between Worcester Air and the high school has brought three apprentices to Local 17’s training center with the focus being on quality over quantity.

“We have been very happy with it,” says Morgan. “The success rate is high. We look for the skills, ability, and passion.”

The industry’s technology is ever evolving and today’s students bring a natural interest in computers and robots. GPS-guided laser-pointing robots help guide sheet metal workers, allowing them to hang duct accurately using coordinates embedded in the digital project plans.

In all, the programs have one thing in common—to tap previously unrealized resources to include opportunities for minorities and women.

“We are looking for future leaders,” says Morgan. “We would like young apprentices to advance to leadership roles within the company and union.” •