‘…best thing that’s ever happened to me’
By TONY PECINOVSKY
To help young people climb out of poverty, Painters District Council 58, spanning St. Louis and Southern Illinois, has created an exciting training program for disadvantaged youth – the Advanced Skills Workforce Center (ASWC) – a new non-profit St. Louis organization committed to providing essential training and related support to disadvantaged youth, particularly youth of color, who want to get off the streets and find a real lifetime career.
First organized by District Council 58 in Decatur, IL under the auspices of a new national training effort of the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades (IUPAT), the St. Louis ASWC effort became the second such program in the nation when it was launched by District Council 58 this past January.
Needing a place to house the program, a call to former NFL football star and native St. Louisan Demetrious Johnson resulted in a partnership with the non-profit north-side Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation to be housed in an unused building in the Delmar Loop that Johnson wanted to turn into a community center. The Foundations goal of providing inner city youth with mentoring, financial literacy, vocational/tutorial and scholastic assistance, fit perfectly with the goals of the ASWC program.
As a result, the ASWC’s new home became the initial hands-on project for its fledgling first training class.
TO BETTER LIVES
“Our program provides the tools, the discipline and a pathway out of poverty for folks eager for the opportunity to better their lives,” Steve Wayland, director of business development at Painters’ District Council 58 and the program’s organizer and chief promoter, told the Labor Tribune.
Twenty-five participants have completed the unpaid 14-week program in the program’s first two inaugural classes. Twelve additional participants are in the current class which will be the last one this year. The program has three sessions a year; each session is five days a week, eight hours a day mirroring what a typical work schedule would be working for a contractor.
TO CREATE DIVERSITY
“Our goal is to promote diversity within the trade,” Wayland said. A majority of the ASWC participants are young African-American men.
Participants learn painting and drywall skills but as important, the essential soft skills such as work ethics, financial literacy, critical thinking and resume writing/interviewing, enabling them to compete in today’s career marketplace. They also receive vital industry recognized certifications like OSHA 10, First Aid, CPR, Scaffold and Lift.
CRITICAL SOFT SKILLS
Wayland pointed out to the Labor Tribune that the soft skills are as important as the practical trade skills.
This emphasis was the result of an industry analysis conducted by the union with end users who would be asked to hire the fledgling painters. The results were loud and clear: attendance (getting to the job on time), taking responsibility for their work and a positive work ethic were as vital as the skill training.
Graduates of the ASWC program join the Painters’ union as first year apprentices once placed with contractors and begin making between $13 and $14 an hour, about double the current minimum wage of $7.65. They also receive union-negotiated annual pay raises and benefits.
Ninety percent of ASCW program graduates have been placed with contractors.
Joshua Washington is one of those graduates. “The ASWC program was the best opportunity I had, an opportunity to get my life together.”
Washington, who used to work part-time with a moving company making $10 an hour, is now working with a union contractor making $14.83, and is expecting a pay raise to $20.94 an hour next year.
“This is an opportunity to learn a trade and make a living wage,” Washington added.
WORKING WITH THE COMMUNITY
The ASWC actively works to build relationships with community organizations, an essential element of the program, Wayland pointed out.
In addition to working with the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation, ASWC has partnered with the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society (WES), a community-labor worker-education organization, to identify potential participants from south-side St. Louis Aldermanic Wards 9, 15 and 20.
Wayland is continually recruiting other community organizations to participate.
“People want good paying union jobs with benefits,” Wayland said. “We work with community groups, like WES to identify folks from the neighborhood, get them the training they need and then place them on a career path out of poverty.”
Progressive St. Louis Alderwomen Megan Green (Ward 15) and Cara Spencer (Ward 20) are meeting with leaders from the Painters’ and WES to begin discussions regarding identifying participants from their wards.
“Word just keeps spreading,” Wayland continued. “In fact, some of our participants have left similar paid programs to come to ours, an unpaid program. They know we are serious about getting folks the skills they need and then getting them placed with contractors.”
TO CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES
“The success of our program, placement and retention is higher than any other program around, as a single trade,” Wayland noted with pride. The current retention rate for the graduates of this program is currently at 85 percent.
“This is such an exciting project, a wonderful opportunity to make a real change in people’s lives,” Don Giljum, WES secretary-treasurer told the Labor Tribune.
Giljum, retired business manager for the Operating Engineers Local 148, added, “We are honored to be a part of this program. We are honored to help end the cycle of poverty faced by so many folks in the community, especially people of color. This program has the potential to dramatically change people’s lives for the better.”
Participants also get help completing their GED or high school diploma, while giving back to the community by volunteering.
“Employment is a struggle we all face collectively,” Wayland said. “Employment, raising the minimum wage, the fight against so-called right-to-work, all of these struggles are connected. This is a collective effort between community and union partners. And it’s succeeding.”
“The program taught me how to be a professional,” Washington concluded. “This is a profession. This is a career. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”