02/11/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

'Building Futures' Inspires Unemployed, Helps Meet D.C.-Area Construction Skills Gap

By Kathleen McKirchy

Charmecca Turner just began her third week as an apprentice with Sheet Metal Workers 100 and still bubbles over with excitement for what she is learning. "Every day I learn something new and am really fascinated by all that I'm gonna learn in the future," exudes Turner. "When I'm finished with my work, I always walk around to the welders, the mechanics, the cutters and anyone else to see if I can help them with anything."

Turner is a recent graduate of "Building Futures," a no-cost, pre-apprenticeship program in the construction trades for Washington, D.C., area residents, which was launched shortly after the start of the Great Recession. It provides access to the training and certifications individuals need to land good jobs and build careers in this industry, while helping to meet the skills gap as the economy recovers and the demand for new construction grows.

The six-week program is operated by the Community Services Agency (CSA) of the Metro Washington AFL-CIO. Trainees benefit from hands-on training with tools and materials, construction math and blue print reading, orientation to the crafts and trades, and job readiness skills that help make graduates good employees.

"Trainees are held to the highest standards in attendance, punctuality, attitude and class participation," said Sylvia Casaro Dietert, client services coordinator. "And as graduates, they feel confident, as do we, that they can successfully compete for helper, apprenticeship or entry-level positions."

The program recruits low-income minorities and women, including ex-offenders and veterans, and helps them find stable jobs in a growing industry. As a result, life-changing stories are commonplace.

Says Turner, "I'm like a sponge in there, trying to soak up as much information and knowledge about the sheet metal business as I can. I am the only female in the warehouse, but none of the guys make me feel uncomfortable. They treat me like I'm one of the guys and I love it."

In the past five years, several hundred individuals have completed the Building Futures course. "Experiences such as Ms. Turner's inspire us to keep working hard every day, one person at a time," said Andrea Thompson, CSA job developer. During that time, graduates have enjoyed a placement rate of around 80 percent into jobs and union construction apprenticeship programs leading to journey worker status.

Part of this success comes from CSA working hand-in-hand with leaders in the building and construction industry to connect graduates with apprenticeship and entry-level positions that jumpstart careers. For example, Thomas Dreher, another area resident, graduated from the Building Futures program last June and was immediately accepted as a first-year apprentice at Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 891. A few weeks later, he gained full-time employment when Jim Miller, the Local's apprenticeship director, secured a position for him with one of their signatory contractors.

Building Futures received startup funding through the Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative, a coalition of local and national funders in the Greater Washington region and an initial National Fund for Workforce Solutions site. Currently, the program enjoys funding from various sources, including the Department of Labor's Green Jobs Innovation Fund and the MARPAT Foundation. It also receives support from local union apprenticeship programs and the Professional Women in Construction chapter, and past support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars through the General Services Administration.

To expand successful programs like Building Futures, consider donating to the National Fund for Workforce Solutions through the "JobRaising Challenge" being sponsored by The Huffington Post and the Skoll Foundation. Contributions can be made by the public through CrowdRise. To find out more or to make a donation through March 1, visit

Kathleen McKirchy is Executive Director of the Community Services Agency of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO