Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox | Contributor
Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public.
-Dr. Cornel West
The Urban League of Los Angeles has provided job training and employment opportunities for L.A.’s underserved communities for almost 100 years but the advent of COVID-19 has complicated this important mission.
Proving necessity is the mother of invention, the Urban League Los Angeles has created its Virtual Construction Career Academy (Academy).
The Academy is a unique partnership between the Urban League of Los Angeles and Southern California Gas Company that seeks to prepare individuals for well-paying jobs in the construction field by offering training, preparation and apprenticeships with Southern California Gas Company for those who qualify.
“This is a great time to start a career in construction. With billions of dollars being spent in Los Angeles this program offers a unique opportunity to start a career building the skyscrapers, stadiums, and public works projects that are the future of Los Angeles with great earning potential and union benefits—if you are willing to put in the work,” according to Amare El Jamil, Co-Founder & Instructor Construction Career Academy.
The program offers training in different specializations including carpenter, electrician, glazier, operating engineer, plumber, roofer and waterproofer, sheet metal, sprinkler fitter, steamfitter and industrial pipefitter.
Class instruction lasts for 10 weeks and class meetings are arranged with childcare needs in mind. Classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours in the evening from 6 – 8 p.m. and for four hours on Saturdays.
The program harkens back to a time when vocational education was a traditional path to the middle class by offering the outlet of union apprenticeships and well-paying jobs in exchange for learning a union trade.
“[The Academy] was created through years of Workforce Development and the kind of trade union preparation and apprenticeship training the Urban League has been known for,” according to Program Director at Los Angeles Urban League, Jamecca Marshall. “The Construction Career Academy is a more nimble and more accessible version of some of those apprenticeship programs that you (sic) talked about.”
The link between union employment and the middle class is well known.
According to a study by the Center for American Progress dated April 2011, “In recent years, the middle class accounted for the smallest share of the nation’s income ever since the end of World War II when this data was first collected. The middle three income quintiles, representing 60% of all Americans, received only 46% of the nation’s income in 2009, the most recent year data is available, down from highs of around 53% in 1969.”
Between 1973 and 2011, the median worker’s real hourly compensation (which includes wages and benefits) rose just 10.7% according to Lawrence Mishel in his article Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages. He detailed how most of this growth occurred in the late 1990s during the wage boom. The boom ended by 2002 and 2003 and subsequently, wages stagnated. The ongoing erosion of unionization and the declining bargaining power of unions played a major role in this.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed union membership dropped to 10.3% from 10.5% in 2018. Over the last several decades union membership has fallen sharply from one in every five workers in 1983 to one in every ten workers today.
The importance of unionized work to maintenance of the middle class is clear. By rewarding the preparation of job training with the real outlet of a union apprenticeship, The Urban League Virtual Construction Career Academy and Southern California Gas Company breathes new life into a proven model for social and economic uplift—exactly what love looks like in public.
What Love Looks Like in Public
The Academy provides training which prepares clients for union apprenticeships and also prepares students to pass the required entrance examinations necessary to become union apprentices.
According to the Urban League, classes are taught by industry experts with decades of experience in training and preparing students to become successful apprentices.
“We’re really casting a wider net in terms of reaching out to others,” Marshall stated, discussing how the program is structured and who it is designed to assist. “Employed folks find it really hard to be employed and go to school three days a week. So, we schedule classes in the evenings and during weekend hours so we can make sure folks have childcare. We really focus broadly on preparing students to get into a multitude of arenas, so we try to focus on things they’ll need whether going into an electrician’s apprenticeship or Sheet Metal Apprenticeship.”
Some of those the Urban League is trying to assist face many impediments to continuing their education. Describing what success looks like for the program, Marshall stated, “[A] women or a veteran or someone who’s coming back at the end of this, having been placed in a well-paying construction job.”
In discussing the Urban League Los Angeles’ partnership with Southern California Gas Company Marshall stated, “I’m with other skills training and apprenticeship programs and construction contractors.” Southern California Gas Company’s partnership is real, hands-on, she explained. The hands-on approach includes providing training materials and guest lecturers. ‘[Southern California Gas makes sure clients] really have everything they need to kind of be prepared to get there so this is a real partnership.”
When speaking to the program’s original (pre COVID-19) design which focused on addressing the needs of their clients by providing additional, crucial and necessary support Marshall stated, “We really built this program with those Supportive Services and we really wanted to make sure they’re truly accessible to the most vulnerable and hardest to employ.”
“It’s about providing Supportive Services like Transportation, like food and clothing resources for our students,” she also talked about the additional support they need for entry level union jobs including test taking fees, tools, work boots and hats.
The program, in partnership with Southern California Gas and others, has responded to the challenges COVID-19 has added to the already complex landscape of providing support for especially vulnerable communities. When speaking of these challenges and the support offered by Southern California Gas Company Marshall stated. “They support that work.”
As an example, Marshall spoke of the need to transition into digital resources and working with partners to provide a Chromebook for all students. Other examples of the types of crucial assistance needed included the need for Wi-Fi hotspots. “Over the summer we had a couple of participants that needed additional resources and support.”
“I think the one thing that comes up to me a lot is, more resources for childcare,” Marshall replied when asked what one thing Marshall wished for to make what she does easier.
Marshall also spoke of recruiting more women and young people “[T] program is about 85% male right now. Women are struggling to access programs like this because they still need childcare and that is just a cost, right now, that is out of the scope of what we can do.”
Representing the other half of this partnership is Wallace Rawls, Director of Gas Systems Integrity and Programs at Southern California Gas Company and also a board member of the Los Angeles Urban League.
“My passion is the program committee because of this particular program,” Rawls stated. “I volunteer my time to come speak to the students, to be there in a support role to make sure that as the person who is running the program—from the Southern California Gas perspective—to make sure the students are prepared for where and when we have openings.
“Hey, we have a partnership with the League and they’re doing a great job,” he highlighted the importance of communicating effectively with his company. “Make sure we take a look at these candidates.”
When asked if there was one thing that could make his role easier, Rawls stated, “I need to do a better job with communications across the organization [Southern California Gas] about the partnership [with the League] regarding the program to make this a priority internally.”
He further explained how making sure he keeps the program in front of the right people in the company so when there are hiring vacancies program participants can be prioritized is his biggest wish.
Both Marshall and Rawls are dedicated members of the community using their talents, gifts and abilities to help others learn the skills necessary to help themselves and then providing them opportunities to do so. They are teaching by example—another instance of what love looks like in public.
To learn more and to register visit laul.org/programs/cca/.
Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is a student and history buff— a grandmother, a parent, a sister, an aunt and lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet.
Madland, David. Karla Walter, and Nick. “Unions Make the Middle Class.” Center for American Progress. 4 Apr 2011.
Accessed 19 Dec 2020.
Michel, Lawrence. “Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages.” Economic Policy Institute. Issue Brief #342. 29 Aug 2012.
Accessed 19 Dec 2020.
Rosenberg, Eli. “Workers are fired up. But union participation is still on the decline, new statistics show.” Washington Post. 23 Jan 2020 https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/01/22/workers-are-fired-up-union-participation-is-still-decline-new-statistics-show/%3foutputType=amp
Accessed 20 Dec 2020.