In October 2014, Corey Harris was unemployed and looking for work. Now he makes $33 an hour as an ironworker apprentice in St. Louis. He made the transition from out-of-work retail manager to a career in construction through a pre-apprenticeship program called Building Union Diversity, or BUD.
Harris graduated from the pilot session of BUD just before Thanksgiving 2014. He was indentured as an ironworker apprentice in December and started getting steady work in March 2015.
“I started off making more than I made in the eight years that I was working at the job I was at after college. So it’s a step up for me,” Harris said, adding that he was learning a lot and enjoying the work.
In its inaugural year, the BUD program has taken 33 people through a seven or eight-week session designed to help prepare women and minorities for a career in construction by exposing them to the skill requirements of several different trades.
The original plan was to have 60 graduates this year. Program organizers say their numbers were limited in part because they decided to cancel the summer session due to heavy rain and other market limitations. But they say BUD is performing well in a more important area — retention rates. More than 80 percent of graduates have found union work so far.
“I think the most important thing to realize is not the size of the classes but the retention level and the placement level of the graduates,” said Jeff Aboussie of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council. “Putting people into programs isn’t worth anything if you can’t get them indentured (and) graduated to become journeymen.”
“Ramping up is something the building trades does extremely well. It’s all driven by your markets,” Aboussie added. “As more projects begin to be slated to come out of the ground that is the trigger that tells us when our apprenticeship classes need to be larger.”
According to Aboussie, the St. Louis region currently has about 40,000 members in the building trades.
John Gaal of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenter’s Regional Council said the BUD program was being looked at by the White House and by other cities as a possible model to emulate, but acknowledged that the program will need to be expanded in order to fill expected worker shortages in the St. Louis region.
“This program won’t be enough unless and until work picks up and we can actually expand the program,” Gaal said, adding that truly diversifying the trades will be a slow process.
“In my opinion, we know that human nature is we tend to act and think like people who look and act like us so as we graduate more women, as we graduate more people of color and they (become journeymen with the option of starting their own businesses), we firmly believe that’s going to be the tipping point of growing the non-traditionals in our industry,” Gaal explained.
Gaal said the number of participants in the BUD program has also been somewhat limited by the requirements of its funding sources — most of the funding for the first two sessions came from a federal grant earmarked for the long-term unemployed.
“For instance last January there was a career day up at (St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley). There were 253 people who showed an interest in the BUD program but … it was whittled down to less than 20 who actually fit the parameters of the grant,” Gaal said, adding that he hopes BUD’s early successes will encourage more private funding similar to a grant provided by the Metropolitan Sewer District.
So far MSD has funded several BUD participants, including 10 of the 11 people who graduated on Wednesday. Gaal said the only caveat with the MSD grant is that the apprentice makeup must match the ratio of unions who work for MSD — 85 percent laborers and operating engineers.
Barbara Huelsing was one of those 11 graduates. She said she was making about as much money as a casino worker as she will be in the building trades, but the trades also offer health benefits.
“At the same time it gives me a career I can be proud of, (I’m) not necessarily so proud of taking money from people,” Huelsing said. “I feel better being a contributor to the community.”
Huelsing said she chose to apprentice with the pipe coverers and insulators, and the union has already accepted her application.
“I will be the first African-American female in Local 1,” Huelsing said. “Part of my decision to choose the insulators was not completely for myself but for other young women who would be looking for a good-paying opportunity.”
Although she is paving a new path, Huelsing said she is not intimidated.
“I’m a mom of a large family. I have seven kids, four of them are girls,” Huelsing said. “I’ve always known that whatever I chose to do in life should be larger than myself.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.