The Summer Construction Education Program

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There are not many minorities or women in the building trades. The
Summer Construction Education Program tries to do something about
that by introducing young minority people and women to the skills of
the trades in a hands-on way.
A multi-county office named Education for Employment (EFE) administers
the program. Going back several years, two local citizens, Tanya
Parker and this author, had been talking with each other and trying to
make contacts with others about the need to offer viable skills to young people who might
not go on to higher education. One of the people we made contact with was Sean
McLaughlin, Director of EFE in this area, to see if he might have the interest and the
resources to launch such a program. Shortly after our conversation with Sean, he created a
task force made up of trade unionists, public school officials, people from Parkland College
and the U of I, and other interested parties to plan a construction training program. It
was decided that a four-week summer program aimed at high school students going into
their junior or senior years would be the way to go. White males would be eligible, but
preference would be given to minority and female students.
The program was launched in the summer of 2008. The participating schools were
Champaign Central and Centennial, Urbana, and Rantoul high schools. Lorie McDonald
in the EFE office was charged with overseeing the program. Champaign Central’s industrial
arts teacher Alex Ramirez became the lead instructor in the program, to be assisted in
2009 and 2010 by Rantoul High School teacher Steven Lowe. Brochures were sent to the
high school counselors and were circulated in the community in a limited way. In addition
to offering credit for the course, the schools paid the students’ wages of $7.50 per hour in
2008 and 2009. Because of the budgetary crisis, the schools could not afford the money,
up this year. so the students are now being paid a flat $500 out of other grant money. The
city of Urbana has also made grants to the program.
The process is as follows: the students fill out an application in which they must offer
information on their academic standing and their attendance record. They must also
write a short essay on their interest in the program and request letters of recommendation
from their teachers or counselors. A panel that assesses the appropriateness of the applicant
for the program then interviews each applicant. This year there were 16 students
accepted, fairly evenly spread between the two Champaign high schools and Urbana’s.
But there was also a student from the R.E.A.D.Y program and one from Urbana Adult
Education. A large majority of the students are African American. There is one Latino student.
There was one female student last year. While it was hoped that her experience
might attract more female applicants this year, none applied.
The students begin the summer program with brief instruction in the construction lab at
Central, but they very soon move out into hands-on experience in building a small structure
like a garage for a private party who pays for the materials. The students learn how to
pour and smooth the cement floor, frame the walls, install windows and doors, roof, and
install electricity. While plumbing is not involved in a garage, they also get instruction in
plumbing and pipe-fitting. Trades people in the unions offer help in the instruction in their
specialized areas. But the students learn even more, including reliable attendance, promptness,
and working cooperatively as a team. In addition, they learn work safety and receive
an OSHA safety certificate that they can present to prospective employers or to unions if
they should apply for apprenticeship programs.
Even if those students who complete the program choose not to enter the building
trades, the skills they learn in this program and the satisfaction that they can actually create
things with their hands is bound to be a transformative experience that raises selfesteem.
For those who will choose the building trades as their vocation, it will prove to be
a good initial preparation for providing materially for self and family. And, it will hopefully
contribute to the diversification of the unionized work force.
For more information on the program, contact Lorie McDonald at (217) 355-1382.

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