The Great Recession and shifting demographics have combined to create a perfect storm in employment and economic opportunity across the country. Even before the economy went south the employment deck was often stacked against many youth, women, minorities, and individuals whose backgrounds include brushes with the law. Today's environment of outsourcing, labor substitution through the use of technology, and the elimination of whole categories of jobs that formerly supported middle-class lifestyles has further reduced chances for upward mobility among those long confined to the outer margins of economic participation. But in Atlanta this scenario has given rise to a partnership that promotes economic recovery by helping marginalized communities sustain middle-class jobs in the skilled trades. A unique collaboration between organized labor and community groups is energizing apprenticeship programs by tapping traditionally neglected or underutilized pools of talent mainly from low-wealth and minority neighborhoods.
The Atlanta/North Georgia Building Trades Council and STAND-UP, a nonprofit "Think and Act Tank for working communities" have partnered to create Trade-Up, a pre-apprenticeship program. Trade-Up addresses a critical gap in the regional labor force. Despite the fact that unemployment in Atlanta building trades remains mired in double digits, the aging construction work force is leading to shortages of workers in specific trades. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that through the remainder of this decade, employment openings will come mainly from the replacement of retiring workers on existing jobs, not from new jobs created by economic growth. Skills linked to apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job training are expected to be among the fastest-growing categories of employment. Apprenticeships are an efficient way to address the paradoxical imbalance between increasing market demand for specialized trade skills in an environment otherwise plagued by high unemployment and declining labor force participation.
The Georgia Workforce Office has predicted openings for 82,000 positions in skilled trades through 2016. With workers whose average age hovers in the mid-50s, construction needs a workforce pipeline to fill jobs quickly and competently. Trade-Up is designed to be that pipeline. STAND-UP and its network of community-based organizations coordinate recruitment and provide screening as well as soft-skills support, such as GED assistance and assistance with expunging conviction records. Participants receive instruction in 21 skill areas under the AFL-CIO Building Trades Multi-craft curriculum. They earn certificates in OSHA 10, CPR and First Aid, financial literacy, bank accounts at community banks, health education and job-readiness skills. With steel-toe boots, painter's pants, blue Trade-UP shirts, and hardhats supplied by the program, they walk out the door confidently, with their background check and clean drug test results, "ready to work." Over 100 trainees have completed the Trade-UP pre-apprenticeship curriculum. The City of Atlanta has pledged to create a designated track for hiring Trade-Up graduates in its public works division and on infrastructure projects. Trade-Up grads have already been placed at a base-closure project at Fort McPherson, power plants, on construction sites, and with residential contractors.
Trade-Up partners realize that supplying trained workers is only one half the economic equation. The other half is demand generation through project development that expands employment beyond the numbers required by generational replacements. To help boost long-term demand for the skilled construction crafts in Atlanta, organized labor, STAND-UP, Trade-Up, and our community partners have teamed with Emerald Cities Atlanta and the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge to champion large-scale retrofits of commercial buildings to achieve energy efficiency throughout the region. The effort is part of Mayor Kasim Reed's goal and the president's "Better Buildings Challenge" to make Atlanta one of the country's leading centers of urban sustainability by achieving a 20-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Within Emerald Cities Atlanta the Trade-Up apprenticeship track supports a collaborative pipeline that coordinates the efforts of organized labor, community groups, technical colleges, local government, and private business to balance training and skill development with projections of actual market demand. The pipeline has attracted widespread interest and is being considered by the Department of Labor as a national model.
The collaborative has not stopped at apprenticeship training and job placement. It has also poised to leverage project investment, hosting a deep dive on retrofit opportunities for "triple bottom line" investors with pension fund portfolios. Pledges of investor support further spurred efforts already underway to secure progressive workforce policies in a right-to-work southern state. Community Benefit Agreements, Community Workforce Agreements, a local hire requirement for the City of Atlanta's own substantial retrofit initiative, and a raft of other policy objectives are currently being negotiated. These policy measures will ensure greater equity in the distribution of benefits from new development and emerging industries and reinforce that the emphasis is not just on access to jobs but access to good jobs with wages and a career ladder that rebuild the middle class.
The Great Recession has had a devastating impact on working people and their families. But emerging within the general gloom are patterns that suggest paths toward future growth and the preservation of high-road, well-paying jobs that support middle-class lifestyles. Partnerships between organized labor and grassroots community organizations that deliver apprenticeship training in the skilled construction trades to disadvantaged and discouraged workers can offset mass retirements and other demographic impacts. Advocacy around large-scale, energy-conserving building retrofits can generate thousands of additional high-skill construction jobs, reviving the industry and rekindling growth. In Atlanta, organized labor, community, local government, and business are uniting to make this happen along with policy initiatives that address equity and fairness. That spirit of expanding economic opportunity while addressing historic disparities through community-based apprenticeships is driving policy innovation and green building practices that make a real difference in the lives of working families and create good jobs while rebuilding the city from the inside out while creating a pipeline for a better future for those who have been left out for far too long.
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