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Trade Diversity: How Workforce Development Programs Are Working to Close the Gaps

September 13, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedLong

Since industrialization took footholds in modern America, the trades have been deemed a male-dominated, white industry across the nation. Philadelphia is no exception. According to the Inquirer, current data detailing the demographic of Philly’s union workforce is not available, but information from 2012 reveals that with 99% male and 76% white demographic this national trend has not changed.

However, in recent years, workforce development initiatives in the city have been aiming to diversify the trade fields. One such initiative is Rebuild. In an effort to employ Philadelphians with living-wage jobs and enrich the city through community improvement projects, the city of Philadelphia created Rebuild in 2016. They diversify trades by offering paid training programs to local minority populations, and this year they were awarded over $3 million from the PA Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We often say the Rebuild job sites and construction sites should look like, and be reflective of, the city of Philadelphia,” said Kira Strong, the executive director.

In the years since, Rebuild has completed a total of 10 workforce development skilled trades training programs for Philadelphia residents. As of July 1, of this year, they had an 82% graduation rate with 94 Philadelphians having graduated from their workforce development training program. Sixty-seven of whom are now in an apprenticeship or pursuing a career in construction. Of that population, 30% were women and 96% were people of color.

Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA) is doing similar work, and they received funding this year to help diversify trades through the Good Jobs Challenge. Their workforce development projects are geared towards creating jobs and expanding diversity while bringing clean energy to the city.

“We have this $90 million street lighting project, right? We’re replacing every single streetlight in the entire city, and that type of investment on behalf of the city should benefit not just the project, but also the citizens of Philadelphia,” said Emily Schapira, PEA president and CEO.

Shonique Banks, senior director, development and workforce initiatives at PEA, highlights the importance of recognizing the challenges their demographics face. This way, PEA can work to alleviate them and bring their participants into these spaces.

“Our model really creates this holistic approach to training people who have been historically—for various reasons—excluded from this work,” Banks said. “And a part of that is providing work supports that enables and sustain people in these trainings programs, minimizing barriers to work, like childcare, a stipend, giving them coaching.”

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She notes that these are barriers are not different than what others might face, but they are challenges that require resources these individuals may not always have access to in order to solve them. This sort of understanding has come from listening to participants and partnering organizations.

“We sit with our partners to get feedback, lessons learned of best practices, and each iteration is, I feel, stronger and reflects those lessons that we’ve learned so that participants can do better in the program,” Banks said.

Rebuild has similar supports built into their projects, offing their participants paid training, Septa passes, tools and equipment, including steel-toed boots, in addition to life coaching which Aiisha G Herring-Miller, deputy director, diverse business and workforce development, notes can be beneficial.

“As an example that was provided to us, if you’re the only woman on site, they might not even think about having another bathroom for [you],” Herring-Miller said. “So those types of things—how you can advocate for yourself in a particular way—that is inclusive of everyone.”

Generocity reached out to Ryan Boyer, Business Manager for Labor District Council, for comment regarding what the needs of laborers are and how those needs should be met, which was not made available at the time of publication.

Despite these programs making strides, they are not without their obstacles. Each only admits a limited number of individuals, thus providing future employment opportunities to few. Additionally, the limited job opportunities unions are facing may be reflected in the admissions of these programs. Rebuild’s admission process is based upon the needs and overall workload of unions.

“Our goal at Rebuild is not to train individuals just to train them,” Herring-Miller said. “We want them to have a realistic way to be able to be employed.”

According to Herring-Miller and Strong, two of Rebuild’s biggest struggles are being able to have enough placements and bringing more employer partners to the table.

“We still want to encourage vendors and Rebuild—so general contractors, subcontractors and other sites, whether it’s Comcast, or its Chop or it’s Penn—to really be open to taking these apprentices on,” Strong said. “We need that partnership. We have it with the trades and the folks in the Hall, but really with the businesses that are the members of these unions to be willing to take one or these three apprentices on and provide an apprenticeship opportunity.”

While limitations keep PEA’s admittance so low, Schapira said that small program sizes are not necessarily a bad thing.

“We’re finding this deep, sort of smaller class size, deeper investment in individuals, and really sort of following their path all the way through and continuing that ongoing support is the thing that has made the difference.”

Without a sustainable way of offering equal opportunity to join the trades to every eligible person Philadelphia, these workforce development programs are instead designed to create long-term employment opportunities for their constituents. They create an efficient and effective pipeline into unions, apprenticeships, and other skilled trade opportunities and expose their participants and their families to new possibilities.

They serve as a model for how other workforce development organizations can build their programs, and they provide excellent proof to their union partners that the trades do not have to be dominated exclusively by white men. Perhaps with buy in from more partners and more project opportunities around the city, they could make a big difference in diversifying the trade field.



What partners should be at the table to develop and further opportunities that diversify the trade industry? Share Your Thoughts!


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What partners should be at the table to develop and further opportunities that diversify the trade industry? Share Your Thoughts!

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