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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Jarvaris Bowers participates in the BUILD program, which is a pre-apprenticeship program offered by the Urban League.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Children enjoy computer time Friday at the Fort Wayne Urban League, 2135 S. Hanna St.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Program builds confidence, community

Urban League connects people, training in trade


Walk by the front desk at the office of the Fort Wayne Urban League on South Hanna Street, and you'll get a good idea of how much the nonprofit organization does to build the community.

Flyers for upcoming events and ongoing programs abound – for a community seminar on home ownership, a gala fundraiser to support the league's Read & Rise program that sends reading tutors into preschoolers' homes and an accessory bazaar providing women in need with shoes and purses.

Then there's the flyer for the league's BUILD program, which helps build the Fort Wayne community – literally.

The program teaches skills that people need to get entry-level jobs finishing concrete, installing electrical cable, constructing houses and running heavy construction equipment.

BUILD – the name stands for Building Trades-Urban League Indiana Plan for Local Diversity – funnels people from diverse backgrounds into apprenticeships with the area's construction-trade unions.

Though the program lasts only four weeks, Jarvaris Bowers of Fort Wayne credits it with changing his life.

After working at a factory job for 15 years but never having much chance for advancement, he enrolled in BUILD, graduated and is now a second-year apprentice in Local 213 of the Laborers International Union in Fort Wayne.

“I put in a lot of hours and struggled so hard. It was like I wasn't going anywhere. And I had kids, so I wanted to get a better opportunity,” he said of his decision to enroll in BUILD.

Now, he has worked on jobs finishing concrete at the new YMCA on Stellhorn Road and doing what he called “heavy highway construction” on U.S. 27 south of Fort Wayne, a job he said was his favorite because it kept him active and outdoors.

“Now, when I drive past something I worked on, it makes me feel I'm a being positive role model for my son,” the graduate of Wayne High School said. “Like, I can tell him, 'Hey, your old man helped put that together.'

“It makes me feel I'm contributing to the community.”

Leroy Jackson, program coordinator for BUILD, said it started in 2015 with cooperation from area unions and a regional building trades council. The program connects to the Urban League's mission to improve employment opportunities as a way of providing economic stability that will boost families' well-being, he said.

With about 25 percent of the area's construction workers retiring every year, Jackson said, the industry is confronting an increasingly urgent need to replenish workers. But many young people in minority communities may not know of the opportunities, salary level and advancement chances the industry can provide, he said.

BUILD provides five certifications pertinent to entering the construction field, training in so-called “soft skills” such as following directions, providing customer service and working as part of a team and safety shoes and other equipment workers might need, Jackson said.

BUILD also identifies academic deficiencies and how to remedy them, while assuring employers a graduate's academic and identification records are in order and he or she has passed a drug screen.

Most important, participants get to talk to people working in nearly 20 unionized occupations about what they do, Jackson said.

“The first class, we had seven people. Seven completed, and they all got jobs. So we said, 'Let's do another,' and we had 17 people, and all graduated, and they all got jobs,” he said.

“Last year, we had 26 people, and one did drop out. But all of the rest graduated, and all got jobs.”

And, he said, the jobs pay about $14, more than $25 an hour when benefits are added, and wages rise with experience. Some trades pay more than $60,000 a year.

In addition, once workers get experience, they may be able to start their own construction business, and minority-owned businesses often find they can get preference on contracts, he said. Some unions also pay for workers to get higher education, he added.   

Although the Urban League is often associated with assisting minority communities, BUILD has had black, white, Hispanic and Asian graduates and is open to men and women, Jackson said. 

And, the program has become the model for a second pre-employment program, a staffing agency the Urban League recently established for people in other fields, including health care and technology, said Jonathan C. Ray, the league's executive director.

That agency recently placed people on a project restoring sidewalks for the City of Fort Wayne, he said, and is enrolling people in free nursing assistant training.

Depending on a person's needs, the staffing agency provides potential workers with specialized training, case management, a mental-health assessment and skills and career-interest inventories. Background checks and drug testing of candidates assist employers, Ray said.

“What we want, is if you're an employer and you're going to diversify your organization, you can come to the Urban League with confidence,” he said.

The league has an $1 million annual budget, some of which comes from state and federal reimbursement for programs it offers, such as foreclosure prevention and first-time homebuyer classes. Grants and donations round out the funding, Ray said.

The league also is the charter holder for the 150-student Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy for students from kindergarten to eighth grade and has an on-site office for Park Center, a Fort Wayne mental and behavioral health provider.

After working with the BUILD program, Glenn Head, of Local 4 of the Bricklayers and Allied Crafts union and diversity chairman for the Northeast Indiana Building Trades Council, said he views the Urban League as a go-to agency.

He helped start BUILD and has placed three workers from it with the union. He foresees a 15 percent to 20 percent job growth for the 250-member local in the next 10 years.

“When I think of the Urban League, I think of an agency that wants to help individuals if you're in some kind of hard times and you want to better your situation. … They have faith in people,” he said.

“I think the biggest thing is … they can lead you in the right direction. They may not be able to do everything, but they can show you the way.”