ESLARP East St. Louis Action Research Project
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Building Orpportunities

Chapter Four

Construction Skills Training

Construction Trades as an Occupational Sector
The Construction Industry in the Metro-East Region
Perceptions in the Local Construction Market
Construction Skills Training Resources and Awareness
Construction Skills Training Issues and Feedback

One of the areas mentioned as a promising sector in early questioning of interviewees was the "building trades", which was seen as a true "career opportunity" worth investigating. Three interviewees brought up the idea spontaneously (as Table A in Chapter 2 indicates). As the interviews progressed, this particular sector was further explored as a training option by directly prompting the interviewees for feedback on it as a potential employment sector for East St. Louis residents. The interviewees were asked the following question: "One area that other researchers have identified as being worthwhile is the construction trades. Does demand for such a program exist (in East St. Louis)?" Of the nine interviewees to whom the question was posed in this form, five responded with a resounding yes, three with a cautionary yes, and only one had a negative response. However, issues were raised that merit caution in embracing the construction sector: union control of training and jobs, and the state of the local construction market. This chapter will further explore the "conventional wisdom" that construction is a good arena to encourage low-income urban residents to pursue, including the more in-depth feedback generated from interviewees about this topic. The cautions that were voiced will be outlined and explained. First, however, the construction trades as an economic sector and career choice in general will be discussed, as well as the construction trades as an economic sector and potential career choice in the Metro-East region specifically.

Construction Trades as an Occupational Sector

The construction industry has an appeal to those who are seeking to provide job opportunities to the historically disadvantaged for three main reasons: most training for building trades occupations can occur "on-the-job", wages are high in comparison to many other occupations that do not require a college education, and job opportunities can be directly linked to physical redevelopment of communities. There are however, other aspects of the construction industry that make it uniquely challenging as a solution to chronic unemployment among those of low-income. Among these reasons are: the cyclical nature of construction employment, the length of training apprenticeships, and the often significant level of control over employment access by building trades unions.

On-the-job training is the primary means of instilling construction trades knowledge. While it is necessary to have achieved a certain level of basic skills, direct work experience received side-by-side with an experienced craftsperson is the primary means of passing skills on to new tradespersons. While in the United States apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job training have never been a significant source of training in many occupations, they are the most prevalent form in the construction industry. Unlike in Europe, where apprenticeships are much more prevalent and are seen as a viable career path for many occupations, they are frowned upon by many in the United States, where a college education holds a very strong place in the measure of success. Construction is a notable exception, where a non-college bound young person can enter a training program without a college background and still be viewed as successful. For young low-income Americans, the construction trades are viewed as a viable career path that is not necessarily a "second-best" option to attending college. For many who have had trouble with the traditional classroom atmosphere earlier in their lives, the ability to balance classroom learning with training in the "real world", often as part of a group, is more palatable.

In 1993, the Chicago Rehab Network, a member organization comprised of non-profit housing developers in the Chicago area, wrote about the importance of construction jobs in the redevelopment of low-income neighborhoods. In addition to citing the ability to enter the industry with relatively few specific skills, and good opportunities for advancement and eventual self-employment, they noted that "wages are higher than average and compare favorably with manufacturing employment that has been on the decline in many city neighborhoods."1 This observation is borne out by recent data that indicates average hourly wage rates in the United States for various trades occupations: $9.70 for general laborers, $13.77 for carpenters, $13.79 for welders, $14.15 for plumbers, $14.39 for pipe fitters, and $14.78 for electricians.2 These are averages, with entry-level wages being lower, and late career wages often exceeding $20.00 per hour. While many other industries have been deeply affected by changing technology, the construction industry is predominantly made up of small businesses, resulting in very little research and development in materials and methods.3 As a result, even if a construction company is very large, the methods it uses are still very labor intensive, and will remain so.

The third aspect of construction work, and the aspect that makes it especially promising for East St. Louis, is its very direct link to physical development. Construction projects are a major and integral part of any redevelopment effort, and are often the factor most focused on. Generating the need and resources for physical redevelopment creates a new demand for construction labor that can be harnessed as an opportunity for job creation, if physical and human redevelopment are brought together during the planning phase. Opportunities for job creation should be included as an integral aspect of these discussions. If considered at the outset, funding needs that reflect a training aspect can be budgeted and applied for. Direct creation of construction jobs can be planned for, and required. Potential spin-off employment effects after the facilities are finished (such as maintenance) must not be forgotten, either.

A majority of construction work in the United States is directly contracted for by government entities.4 The government is also a principal financier of construction activity. The Rehab Network was able to demonstrate that, in Chicago, for every $1 million invested in new construction of single family homes, thirty direct construction or construction-related jobs can be created.5 Maintenance and repair projects create even more of these jobs, with nearly thirty-four positions created by every $1 million invested.6 These figures demonstrate the potentially significant direct effect of undertaking construction projects in a low-income community, provided that mechanisms to insure local hiring and ongoing construction activity are in place.

The first of the three aspects of the construction profession that create challenges to those hoping to provide opportunities to low-income persons is the cyclical nature of the construction process. Construction does not happen at a steady rate throughout the year, causing good wages received during the busy summer season to have to last throughout the slow months of the winter. This fact can cause difficulties for young people who must not only get used to the idea of having an unsteady work flow, but also to the idea of being very responsible and forward thinking about the wages that are received during busy periods. In a book on the topic of unemployment factors in local labor markets, Harry Holzer found that over time the construction industry had a job vacancy rate second only to mining.7 However, he explained this seemingly high rate as caused by skill requirements causing long position vacancies, and by the cyclical nature of the industry. Additionally, he found that non-union firms had a higher vacancy rate than union firms, in general.8 Despite the cyclical nature of construction, however, among the nearly 2,000 construction firms in Illinois with more than twenty employees only seven had layoffs during the third quarter of 1996 (July through September), which would be the period in which construction work begins to wind down for the winter.9

The needed length of apprenticeships is the second potentially problematic factor. The length of the training process, realistically requiring up to two years of general training prior to entering a more focused apprenticeship, which can then often take up to four years to complete, is a long time to wait for full wages and benefits, especially for a young person to whom undertaking any kind of lengthy course work seems unrealistic. Many low-income persons are unable, or may be unwilling, to commit to extended lengths of time without any earned income. The idea that eligibility for public aid or public housing might be lost, without a certain guarantee of future full-fledged employment, is not inviting to many.

The final aspect of construction as a job opportunity, and potentially the most significant one, is the level of control that organized labor holds over the construction industry. In the St. Louis area, union-affiliated firms do most of the major construction projects, and those who are not union-affiliated are mostly smaller businesses that focus on minor projects and repair-oriented jobs. This is a situation repeated in most major metropolitan areas in the United States. While organized labor has been able to increase prevailing wages throughout the construction industry, and improve working conditions and benefits offered to construction workers, minorities and women have historically been under-represented in construction trade union ranks. Unions grew out of white-ethnic oriented workers guilds on the East Coast, and over the years have replenished their ranks somewhat through advertising and other outreach of various kinds. However, the most prevalent form of union "recruitment" is through the family structure, with sons (and occasionally daughters) following in their fathers' footsteps, after seeing union membership as something taken for granted in their lives. Whether justified or not, there is a very real sense of history and family associated with union membership, and those on the outside often feel unwelcome and excluded. Over the years, unions have earned many concessions regarding wages and working conditions in their areas, and now focus efforts on insuring that most, if not all, construction work is done by "union shops." In the words of the carpenters' union itself, energies are no longer directed at "struggles" against "clever and ruthless opponents" in the workplace, but at protecting a market share of future sources of work.10

Events of the last few decades have created new opportunities for unions and those with interests in community rebuilding to work together, however. Janet Hotch, in a 1997 article entitled "Common Interests", describes the decimation of union membership rolls and bargaining power over the last twenty years due to plant closings, union-busting policies and service sector growth. Labor's "traditional way of operating-servicing its old members and organizing shop-by-shop- is being replaced by a more proactive approach of organizing new members outside the traditional workplace."11 She quotes Marilyn Sneiderman, the AFL-CIO's field services director, as writing, "The mission of the AFL-CIO central labor councils is to organize in the community to promote social justice for all working people."12

Whether this new focus on serving the greater community will truly "trickle down" to district councils as they deal with regional and local issues, or will make a dent in the historical practices of building trades unions, remains to be seen. The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago has noted the importance of working with the unions, and understanding their concerns, because, as they put it, "access to the union is important in turning temporary construction jobs into long-term opportunities," especially in situations where unions are awarded contracts based on agreement to hire local minorities and women.13 To not understand and deal head-on with the union issue can be the downfall of any attempt to train "outsiders" for careers in construction.

The Construction Industry in the Metro-East Region

There are reasons why promoting trades training holds significant promise in East St. Louis, even though challenges are many. As neighborhood-based organizations continue to mobilize and receive funding support to create new housing and community centers throughout the city, and as government-supported projects come to fruition, direct job opportunities can be created. For example, there is a lot of discussion in East St. Louis of the need to generate spin-off development on the riverfront, tied to the recent addition of the Casino Queen riverboat facility. Interviewees mentioned various plans for a hotel, a performing arts facility, and for related services such as restaurants. Other pending projects currently being discussed are a new prison facility, numerous new public housing units, a new mass transit stop on the Metro-Link line, and housing related to that transit stop and in other areas. Federal and state government funding will play a major role in many of the current projects being discussed in East St. Louis. Projects that are properly planned up front- and carefully contracted for- can provide not only short-term jobs, but also long-term career opportunities.

For the past few decades, the construction industry has remained relatively stable in the Metro-East region, but has floundered in East St. Louis itself. This situation reflects the salability of East St. Louis housing and is evident whether construction firms and jobs, or statistics on housing, are considered.

Table 19 (in Appendix E) indicates the number of construction-related establishments that have been in operation over time in St. Clair County, without regard to their specific location. In general, all trades, as well as general contracting businesses, have held steady or increased over time, despite the weaknesses in the real estate and construction market in East St. Louis, one of the county's two population centers. In the decade from 1984 to 1994, there were significant increases in the number of businesses in almost every category. This indicates that the construction trade is doing well county-wide. Primary activity occurs in areas of growth or stability, so that those enterprises based in slower areas are still able to seek business in more active locations. The overall number of employees engaged in construction in the county has shown some volatility over time, but in the long run has increased. In 1953, just over 2900 persons were involved in "contract construction", and after some ups and downs, nearly 3500 are employed in the same sector in 1994.14

Tables 20 and 21 (in Appendix E) offer a telling view of the state of the current housing infrastructure in East St. Louis and Belleville. While Belleville has constructed enough housing units to nearly double its housing stock in the past four decades, East St. Louis has lost nearly 40 percent of its housing stock to demolition or abandonment. Virtually no new construction has occurred in East St. Louis during this time period, save for a few housing units in very recent years. Of the housing units that were habitable in 1990, over 16 percent were vacant due to lack of demand. As indicated in Chapter 1, homeownership rates have stayed remarkably steady, but the condition of many owner-occupied homes has deteriorated due to lower incomes causing reduced upkeep expenditures. Also, many homeowners are left with only the options of keeping a devalued home or abandoning it altogether, due to the lack of market interest in purchasing property in East St. Louis.

Another major factor limiting real estate activity in East St. Louis is a property tax burden that is nearly twice as high as other area jurisdictions. This has resulted from a total property tax rate in excess of 12 percent in East St. Louis, nearly twice that of Belleville (as Tables 22 and 23 in Appendix E indicate). While there is a need for East St. Louis to raise revenue through property taxation on an ever shrinking valuation base, the high rate has effectively eliminated a willingness to pursue new construction within the city. The issue of property tax reform will need to be further discussed and seriously considered if a private sector construction market is ever to be recreated in East St. Louis.

The remaining data here provide a glimpse of the construction sector in the Metro East region. It is nearly impossible to feasibly construct or improve either rental or owner-occupied housing in East St. Louis given the current property tax constraints mentioned above. Virtually the only new construction that has occurred in recent years has been by a few middle class residents who have made an investment in East St. Louis for personal reasons, overlooking the economic "rationality" of the decision. For instance, Table 24 (in Appendix E) indicates that in 1994, one new house with a value of $75,000 was constructed in the city of East St. Louis, and permits were issued for $20,000 worth of home repairs and additions of the type sufficient to require permits. In 1995, ten new homes were built and sold to middle-class buyers in a newly developed subdivision, Lake Ana Estates. In the same year, eight new homes were begun in the South End neighborhood. Both of these building projects relied heavily on state TIF and federal CDBG subsidies to buyers.15 In Belleville, a city of roughly the same population, a thriving residential construction industry is indicated. Belleville also accounted for over one-third of all the office and commercial construction in the county in the same year.

The amount of building activity since 1950 diminished so much in East St. Louis that the data was often not sufficient to be reported to the Census Bureau (see Table 25 in Appendix E). Belleville appears to be in a recent downturn, but this may be partially explained by the types of units being constructed from year to year (small apartments instead of single-family homes, for instance).

Perceptions in the Local Construction Market

Interviews were conducted with four persons closely connected to the construction industry in the St. Louis area. Mr. Tadas Kicielinski, secretary/treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, and Mr. James Kennedy, the business representative for East St. Louis Local #169 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, were interviewed to better understand the Illinois union perspective in East St. Louis. Mr. John Gaal, director of the St. Louis Construction Training School, was interviewed over the phone about the Missouri union perspective. Mr. Don Johnson, an area real estate developer doing construction in East St. Louis, was also approached for his feedback. The four main issues in these discussions were as follows: a strong continuing union presence in the Metro-East region, misconceptions about unions, the logistics of union apprenticeship training, and the effect of union labor costs on affordable housing production.

The general perception in discussions with the various people associated with construction trades was that there is less work to go around on the Illinois side of the river currently, and that many tradespeople are having to travel up to two hours every day to job sites in Missouri. There has been some unemployment even among union tradespeople in Illinois recently, which has caused some tension between Illinois and Missouri unions, especially when Missouri union shops get work in Illinois and bring Missouri workers over the state line. "Portability clauses" require that a certain number of local jurisdiction union members be hired on projects in their area, and those rules are generally abided by.

Tadas Kicielinski, whose jurisdiction covers a twelve-county region, verified that the urbanized area of Metro-East has a very strong union presence, and he feels that pursuing anything but a small home repair-type business without being union is probably unrealistic in the area. As an example, he mentioned that about 90% of Illinois Department of Transportation work is done by union contractors.

After being asked about perceptions of decreased membership and a decrease in power in organized labor, Mr. Kicielinski agreed that the perception that unions are "struggling" is justified, citing Reagan allowing strikebreakers during the air traffic controllers strike in the 80s as having severely weakened the position of organized labor in the last decade. James Kennedy confirmed that union rolls have decreased over the years, but explained that, because of improved tools and methods, "ten man" jobs can now be done by three or four tradespersons in the same amount of time. He recounted past concerns among union members that improving technology would eventually make carpenters obsolete. While, of course, that has not happened, the carpenters' local chapter does not lack for sufficient interested applicants to fill spots made available through attrition, and has a long-standing relationship with Belleville Area College, which provides the classroom aspects of their apprenticeship program.

Mr. Kicielinski expressed frustration at the misconceptions that exist about construction work. For example, he sees many applicants who do not realize that at least two years of high school algebra are needed for nearly any trade. A union construction career requires ongoing training to earn "certificates," if members want to continue to move up in the ranks. Also, he sees applicants who have been led to believe that you can "make a career out of holding signs" on highway projects. He noted that the people who appear to be "just holding signs" are often injured, and that the task is rotated among fully trained employees. Mr. Kennedy concurred with Mr. Kicielinski that young people from East St. Louis express an initial interest without knowing anything about what union membership entails, or realizing the time commitment involved. Once they are made aware of the three to four year apprenticeship program, most seem to lose interest in continuing.

In Illinois, as everywhere, union apprenticeships typically last three to four years, and applicants must pass a minimum requirements entrance exam. Mr. Kicielinski noted that, historically, minorities in the Metro-East area have had a very hard time passing these exams. He mentioned that the Urban League brings minority candidates in every year to take the exams, and they "almost always fail." Also, they have often not been adequately informed about what they are getting into. James Kennedy voiced similar frustrations about the challenges facing minorities who apply to the union apprenticeship program. He mentioned that the local chapter has seventy-five minority members out of a total of 370 (of which roughly 100 are retired), fifty of whom are East St. Louis residents. Therefore, minorities comprise roughly 20 percent of local membership, and East St. Louis residents comprise roughly 14 percent. On the day of the interview, twenty-three local members were out of work, twelve of whom were minorities.

For one week every year, applications are made available at the Local 169 office, after advertisements are placed in area newspapers. Initial requirements (as stated in the advertisement) are: a minimum age of seventeen years, a high school diploma or GED certificate, a record of previous work experience, and three written character references. Before job placement, applicants must also supply a doctor's physical report. Mr. Kennedy stated that while a lot of interest is expressed in some years, other years generate very few applicants. In 1996, twenty-eight people picked up applications, sixteen showed up for the first orientation session, and thirteen came to the second orientation (at which the entrance examination was administered). Of the seven who passed the examination and were still interested after the final interview, one never showed up for work on his first day. The remaining six were "sent to work" to begin an apprenticeship, (less than one-fourth of those who initially applied). Members are placed on a list, and are doled out to contractors wanting apprentices by order on the list. However, Mr. Kennedy noted that a "letter of reference" would allow a person lower on the list to bump someone ahead of him or her.

Both union representatives who were interviewed stated that interest in the construction trades is high, because the wages offered compare favorably with other career choices. Both men reiterated the union position that those entering union apprenticeships must have the interest and commitment necessary, and that the unions in Metro-East will continue to push for union representation on publicly funded construction jobs and compliance with "prevailing wage laws" on all construction projects (union or not), no matter how small. Otherwise, in Mr. Kennedy's words, "everybody ends up losing." He questioned the ability of those who do not undergo union-sponsored apprenticeships to effectively learn their trade, and noted that they would have trouble getting the bonding power and connections needed to progress beyond small jobs throughout their careers. When he learns of non-union construction workers operating in the region, his job, in his words, is to "organize them, or picket them."

Don Johnson, a local real estate developer who has begun to do some new housing construction in East St. Louis in the past year, has utilized both union and non-union labor on his projects, based on availability and cost. He senses a real need for more minority participation in the building trades in the area, and on his projects is able to hire roughly 65 percent local subcontractors, and 75 percent minority subcontractors. He has found a regional shortage of concrete contractors and plumbers, but feels there are enough businesses in the other trades to support the current local workload.

Mr. Johnson's company, Community Development Consultants, is a growing business involved in all the aspects of real estate development, including design, contracting, sales, and intervening with banks on behalf of potential buyers. He is currently doing almost the only new housing construction in East St. Louis. He hopes, as his business expands, to be able to provide a wide range of training opportunities, in all these areas. So far, he has hired and trained a few people, but they came to him looking for work themselves. He has built eight houses in East St. Louis in the past year, and eventually wants to build 100 houses per year regionally. He hopes to eventually have trim carpenters and painters on staff, and be able to subcontract out to locals as much as possible for the rest.

Mr. Johnson's work sites have been visited by union representatives (and his workers questioned) on more than one occasion, and his use of non-union labor has been reported to HUD at least once. Some of his funding comes from HUD, and projects that involve more than twelve units being constructed at once are subject to prevailing wage laws. The union position on this issue is that even though Mr. Johnson's work sites are scattered around the city, he should still be subject to the regulations that require all construction workers, both union and non-union, to be paid the area's prevailing wage (in other words, the union scale wage).

Mr. Johnson pointed out, using a specific numerical example, that using union labor rates would render his product unaffordable for the buyers he is targeting, and who would consider moving into East St. Louis currently. His building focuses on middle-income buyers, to lure them back into East St. Louis. Therefore, his houses fall into the $60,000 to $80,000 price range. He feels that the housing authority is focused on the very low-income market (requiring resident subsidies), and that area non-profit organizations will be able to handle the low-income market (requiring builder subsidies). A house that he can currently build for around $78,000 would cost $90,000 if he had to use all union labor, and would exceed appraised value. He sees the housing market as being a lot less unionized than the market for commercial, government and special-use construction. How this potential conflict plays out as construction activity increases within East St. Louis, much of it subsidized, remains to be seen.

Dealing with this issue will be crucial to the design of any training initiative. On the one hand, union representatives are correct in stating that the good wages available in the construction trades are the result of hard-fought battles to secure a level of market value. And yet, in East St. Louis the real estate market is so tenuous that the term "market" may not even be appropriate, at least for the time being. An increased understanding of the issues involved, an all sides, will be necessary.

Construction Skills Training Resources and Awareness

When asked about current programs available for those interested in the building trades, interviewees surveyed were aware of very few options. Besides the school district, which offers some vocational courses to high school students related to the building trades, union apprenticeship programs and a few isolated JTPA programs (many of which are located in Missouri) are the only training opportunities available. The school district is working with the community college to insure that they avoid redundancy if MCC expands its course offerings. None of the current training provides a comprehensive introduction to construction as a career, and only the union apprenticeships currently offer a clear future direction and access to work opportunities. Marilyn Stringfellow of JTPA noted that the PIC, which includes organized labor representation, avoids funding JTPA programs that will provide direct competition to union training offerings.

Three recent developments in this arena deserve mention, however: the East St. Louis "YouthBuild" program, the current efforts at the East St. Louis Housing Authority to include a training component in future rehabilitation projects, and a program that has grown out of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council's aforementioned Regional Jobs Initiative. While these programs are at various stages of development and activity, their potential impact on and potential role in future construction trades training development must be considered. Awareness of them is not yet widespread, but they will affect the training debate and potentially become more influential in the future.


The East St. Louis YouthBuild program was begun in 1995, initially housed in the East St. Louis Township office and funded by HUD. After some months of administration from the Township office, during which the program did not get off the ground, it was transferred (on HUD's order) to Metropolitan Community College. YouthBuild was to be a core around which to reinvigorate a building trades training program at MCC. However, arguments over release of funds from the Township office to pay staff and participants eventually led to the resignation of MCC's YouthBuild director early in 1997. The program may lose its HUD funding permanently due to the infighting that has plagued its local implementation. The East St. Louis program was one of many across the country that began due to the determination of one woman in New York, who saw the building trades not just as a potential career opportunity for low-income youths, but as a chance for them to get actively involved in rebuilding their communities, and to establish their sense of self-worth and pride.

YouthBuild is the brainchild of Dorothy Stoneman, a woman now in her 50s who has been working actively for nearly thirty years to improve the outlook for high school dropouts ages 16 to 24, who are trapped in a cycle of urban poverty and lack of job opportunity.16 Many of the youth she sought to rehabilitate have been involved in crime, and often have become parents at a young age. The program she designed has blossomed and is now emulated nationwide, with recently acquired federal support. It is a year-long combination of courses towards earning a high school equivalency diploma and on-the-job training in construction, during which the participants are equipped with the skills necessary to either compete for well-paying jobs in the construction industry, or to go on to higher level education.

She began her work in East Harlem in New York in 1978, creating the Youth Action Program (YAP). The program expanded citywide in 1984, and nationwide in 1988, newly renamed YouthBuild.17 Early participants rehabilitated inner-city buildings, and created community centers, homeless housing, and day-care and senior-citizens centers. Since that time, the central offices have been relocated to a Boston suburb, and Stoneman and her staff now provide technical assistance to 100 YouthBuild programs that operate in 34 states.18 All are based on the original model of a nine to eighteen month program that combines classroom work with on-the-job training, rehabilitating buildings for use as affordable housing in low-income communities. Students earn a living wage while in the program, and are docked pay for absences and given bonuses for exceptional performance. In addition to regular course work, participants receive individual counseling and are involved in "mental toughening" exercises and peer support activities, all of which serve to prepare them for success in the work world after completing the program, even if they pursue another career. As the YouthBuild literature states: "Major emphasis is placed on providing opportunities for young people to develop as leaders through decision making, through involvement in community life, and through leadership training".19 Participants are involved in staffing and management decisions in the individual programs, increasing their sense of "ownership" of their destinies.

Early implementation was supported by private foundations, including the Ford Foundation, and eventually some public financial support was garnered at the local level. Innovative means for acquiring abandoned properties for rehabilitation also reflected public support that was not directly financial. By 1994, there were community-based YouthBuild programs in 14 cities, with sufficient local public and private funds.20 Some grant money was also available from the central YouthBuild office.

With the program being implemented in many areas nationwide, the "YouthBuild Act" was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 by Rep. Major Owens of Brooklyn (H.R. 501), and in the Senate in 1992 by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (S. 1100).21 Two years of active lobbying later, "Subtitle D- Hope for Youth: YouthBuild" was passed into law as part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. Appropriations of $40 million, $28 million, and $40 million respectively were granted in fiscal years 1993, 1994 and 1995. The funding is administered by HUD through competitive applications. They have received over 1300 to date. By 1996, 90 HUD-funded YouthBuild programs were in operation.22

It has been noted that programs such as YouthBuild, that employ and train youth to provide a productive alternative to criminal activity and welfare dependence, are much cheaper solutions than other avenues for federal spending. YouthBuild proponents have stated that while it costs nearly $17,000 per year per participant to operate the YouthBuild Boston program, it costs over $40,000 per year to keep one person in prison.23

Until early this year, East St. Louis YouthBuild served a few dozen high school dropouts, who were pursuing their GEDs and taking some basic coursework on topics like workplace etiquette. They had also begun the "mental toughening" aspect of the program, but had not yet begun hands-on construction work. Gaining access to meaningful construction opportunities was another cause of the former director's frustration. The local program was designed to last about one year, and to prepare the participants to enter a more focused apprenticeship program, whether at MCC or elsewhere.

The myriad problems that the local YouthBuild program encountered are very unfortunate, as the model was one that could have meshed nicely with more focused programs. The often-voiced concern that young East St. Louis residents do not understand "what they're getting into" could have been somewhat remedied by providing a rudimentary training opportunity of this kind. However, John Gaal of the St. Louis Construction Training School noted during a phone conversation that of the three ongoing YouthBuild programs in St. Louis, two are so basic that they do not really even prepare participants to deal with an apprenticeship, mush less prepare them to go out and find a non-union job on their own. Striking the right balance appears to be difficult.

East St. Louis Housing Authority Efforts

The Housing Authority undertook a needs assessment survey of their residents about four years ago, and found that 67 percent of public housing households have only one adult, most of whom are single females, and that 62 percent of these households have children under twelve. Only 15 percent of the respondents were employed, and 53 percent of public housing families receive welfare. When asked what job training opportunities they were most interested in, they named computer skills, child care, and health care. The Housing Authority has undertaken efforts to insure that public housing residents are aware of available opportunities, and of impending welfare reform. In their continuing attempts to provide employment avenues for their residents, they have recently made use of an often-ignored HUD regulation commonly called "Section 3", which was part of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. It requires "that programs of direct financial assistance administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide, to the greatest extent feasible, opportunities for job training and employment to lower income residents in connection with projects in those neighborhoods. Further, to the greatest extent feasible, contracts in connection with these projects are to be awarded to local businesses."24 Public housing projects, as well as Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOPE program and HOME program funded projects all fall under the purview of this regulation. Therefore, when an Request for Proposals (RFP) for rehabilitation of sixty-six public housing units was issued recently, it included a provision requiring the hiring and training of public housing residents. While the result of this requirement remains to be seen, it has generated discussion between the housing authority and area union representatives about how to deal with the issue.

The area union District Council has responded to this RFP with the suggestion that a "Step-Up" program be initiated. In exchange for the housing authority agreeing to hire only union labor for its projects, they have offered to cooperate in the administration of a two-year program for public housing residents, in which each craft will hire and train one Step-Up apprentice for every one regular craft apprentice and every five journeyworkers (full union workers who have completed the apprenticeship sequence). The housing authority will be responsible for all wages and benefits of each Step-Up apprentice, and after two years of rotating through the crafts each Step-Up apprentice will be given the opportunity to begin a full-fledged union apprenticeship.

This model is based on one that has been used in several other cities, under the same name, in which public housing residents (mostly women) were hired and trained by the authorities themselves to do maintenance and construction work at authority buildings, under supervision. The programs are too young to determine the success rate of program "graduates" who hope to enter a union career. Fully a third of the initial participants in Chicago have been dismissed, mostly for absenteeism.25 For the duration of one of the ongoing programs, in Chicago, residents are guaranteed not to lose their Medicaid benefits or have their rents raised to reflect their new wages.

Tadas Kicielinski maintains that the problem with past training programs done in public housing projects is that people are hired for a year to "stand around", and at the end are no better off than they were before. He noted that for public housing residents this can be especially cruel, because unless the programs are carefully designed, they can lose their eligibility for public housing. He also reiterated that to make any program work, the housing authority will need to deal with the fact that people need basic skills first, and a clear understanding of what a construction career involves.

Another offer that the Housing Authority has received in response to the RFP is from a large construction firm from St. Louis, E. M. Harris, who has approached the local JTPA administrator about the ETC helping to recruit and screen sixty to seventy potential hires from among public housing residents, if they were to receive the bid. The funding of this proposed training component, regardless of who undertakes it, is unclear. The Housing Authority director, Cheryl Lovell, pointed out during our interview that, as much as administrators would like to be able to provide training programs associated with other necessary projects, there is often no "extra" funding available to make such programs a reality. This concern points out the need to collaborate with entities that can secure other funding sources, to supplement physical rebuilding efforts and maximize the utility of both.

Regional Jobs Initiative "Recycler" Program

As mentioned briefly in Chapter 2, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, a not-for-profit voluntary association of local governments in the St. Louis area, is nearing completion of the planning phase of their "Regional Jobs Initiative." The Initiative has been a collaborative planning effort involving input from various public, private and community-based organizations interested in improving the functioning of the regional labor market. Now that the planning phase is ending, implementation plans are moving ahead for experimental programs to intervene in the labor market in two sectors. While manufacturing is languishing due to lack of private-sector interest, health care and construction trades market interventions are moving ahead, due in large part to the existence of private sector partners who have come forward. Annie E. Casey Foundation funds can only be used for support purposes, such as transportation cost assistance. They cannot be used to directly pay or subsidize trainees or trainers. Most of the recipients of the training (at least 50 percent), must come from a contiguous "target area", which has been designated in northwest St. Louis and includes a couple of adjacent suburbs, an area that is predominantly minority and low-income. This target area is for evaluation purposes. Outside recipients will be "extras" as program capacity allows. Casey Foundation funding extends for seven years of implementation.

Steven Schneider of the Intergovernmental Grants Department was involved early on with the Initiative. As it progressed it became very focused in Missouri, due to a Casey Foundation's requirement for a defined "target area". For this reason, Illinois participation in the planning of it has tapered off over time. His reaction to Initiative as it has progressed is that it will not directly benefit Illinois until down the road, if any of its models prove successful. He is involved in many other projects, and was unable to follow through with something that was not directly related to his service area (a five-county region).

The "recycler" program prototype that is being pursued is structured in the following way (see diagram in Appendix F). Recruits from St. Louis YouthBuild programs and other neighborhood-based sources will be given the opportunity to work for a demolition and salvage company, doing basic demolition work. After six months of successful employment, they will be promoted to a "sorter" position, involving more use of equipment and continuing the hands-on aspects of the previous position. Concurrent with this work, they will be involved in a year-long pre-apprenticeship classroom sequence, and will be assigned a journeyman mentor. At the completion of one year of employment, trainees will have the option of continuing on as sorters with the demolition and salvage company, or entering a union carpentry apprenticeship. When starting, trainees will have a "letter of intent" from a contractor to hire them after a year, contingent upon successful completion of the year-long program.

Grant Porteous, the director of Labor Initiatives for the Council, sees ESL residents as potential "extras" in this "recycler" program, after its first year, if all goes well. The first year will involve 20 people from the target area, who will enter into a year-long employment period with a demolition and salvage company that currently has plenty of private sector work, while taking an evening class one night a week about construction in general. After satisfactory completion of one year of employment, trainees can either stay on working for the demolition and salvage company, or apply to enter a union apprenticeship program. The success of this model is contingent upon Mr. Porteous locating union carpenters who will commit to taking on apprentices after the year is completed, and to serving as mentors to trainees.

As Mr. Porteous puts it, the unions right now thrive on "Uncle Joe bringing his nephew Billy Bob into the carpentry trade," and that maybe after a decade of this program, there will be enough minority "Uncle Joes" in the region to perpetuate minority participation without special efforts. The ultimate goal of the program will be to eventually extend into other construction-related areas, such as introductory training through materials suppliers or equipment suppliers, also. Whether all of the work undertaken by the trainees will be in Missouri is still undetermined.

These three recent developments each have their problems, but also promise. Youthbuild programs can create a very real link to community rebuilding in the minds of participants, if issues of property acquisition and access to apprenticeships can be dealt with. The Step-Up program, or something similar, can provide on-site job opportunity for public housing residents with child care and transportation barriers, if the issues of continuing eligibility for housing and access to future work can be resolved. And finally, the Regional Jobs Initiative solution can provide a good basic introduction, with hands-on experience and immediate earnings, if union mentoring and access can be established.

Construction Skills Training Issues and Feedback

After some initial knowledge was obtained, further questions were asked of interviewees to gain more insight into what form a construction trades training program in East St. Louis might take. As mentioned before, of the nine persons asked about the potential demand for a trades training program, only three offered cautious affirmative responses and only one felt such a program was not worthwhile. It is interesting to note that those who expressed a less than enthusiastic response were generally social service providers who deal directly with welfare recipients on a day-to-day basis, and who felt that alternative programs that might lead to quicker positive outcomes were more warranted.

When giving reasons for their positive responses, interviewees offered the following justifications. Many felt that, with the pending construction activity in the city over the next decade, jobs could be available for participants in such a program. They felt, in essence, that with proper planning a market could be "created." A few felt that demand would exist, in particular, for a program offering mechanical trades training, such as electrical and HVAC systems construction and repair. The skills center director at MCC, Larry Allen, noted that contractors and their representatives have expressed frustration to him at being unable to find qualified persons from East St. Louis to hire. The persons contacting him represent larger St. Louis contractors, since most major regional construction work is currently occurring in Missouri.

One interviewee cautioned that, with a lot of government subsidized work occurring, the private sector might be wary of trying to compete, and in the long run that could be detrimental to East St. Louis. Cheryl Lovell noted that single mothers will be the most affected by welfare reform, and yet according to the survey the housing authority conducted a few years ago, they will not be interested in trades training. She and one other interviewee stated that focusing on training for the service occupations would be more fruitful.

When asked what format a trades training program should take, there was near unanimity that the city needs a strong, consistent vocational training program, most likely at the community college. The regional vocational director at the school district, Clarence Ellis, felt that the high school needed to strengthen and expand its program, being careful not to be redundant with the offerings at the community college, but that fitting trades training into the normal high school curriculum is difficult. He felt that to be effective, a program would have to involve at least three hours of hands-on training at a stretch, and that those that can get state-certification are not necessarily the best qualified to be teaching the trades. He envisions a program at the high school level that has a state-certified coordinator, but is able to bring in practicing tradespeople to do the hands-on portion of the instruction. At the high school level, he felt that incorporating summer work experience was crucial.

Even if trades training were to begin after high school, as it might for many, it was felt that high schools need to prepare students better for the working world in general, to help trainees deal with the culture shock and pressure of the on-the-job training environment. Bill Kreeb, director of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in Emerson Park, noted that trades training could provide an opportunity to focus on more wide-ranging topics related to physical development, such as real estate financing, marketing, supplies acquisition, and entrepreneurial opportunities. He also cited a study that had found that young people who had experienced a "dead-end job" had increased motivation to complete training programs. He cautioned against overemphasizing the classroom component of trades training at the outset, using YouthBuild as an example of a program that might be "backwards", offering too much classroom time early on, when trainees are eager to try out hands-on work to see if it is to their liking. The public housing survey that indicated a reluctance to undertake a long training program of any kind is also a consideration.

The feeling that union involvement will be important was also nearly unanimous. The most prevalent reason given was union control over the job market. A few interviewees noted that because of their close ties to JTPA and the Department of Labor they also exercise great control over what constitutes a fundable and industry-accepted training format. Most agree that creating a training program that the unions were hostile toward would not serve East St. Louis trainees well in the long run, given the assumption that local employment would be their ultimate goal. A need for better communication with the unions was necessary, or as Larry Allen of MCC put it, "bridges need to be rebuilt." It was felt by many that if East St. Louis residents were able to offer the right initial skills, getting in to apprenticeship programs would not be so problematic.

The few interviewees who expressed reservations about union involvement based their reasoning on larger, more philosophical issues. One felt that unions were part of the downfall of East St. Louis in the first place, because their excessive wage demands in the manufacturing sector caused industry to leave the area. In this new era of decreased job security, he feels that unions are losing ground. Another flatly stated that unions have been a hindrance to things getting done, and will be more concerned about maintaining their own position than about playing any role in the revitalization of East St. Louis.

While most interviewees mentioned that both union input into program design, and cooperation, would be necessary, many seemed to arrive at the conclusion that the most logical entity to house a trades training program in East St. Louis is the local community college. Many were quick to point out, however, that the success of the effort will be tied to partnerships with job sources and correlation with demand. They also felt that insuring adequate support structures for trainees was crucial, and that those services could be provided by partnering with other organizations. The efforts of many different organizations should ideally "dovetail together" in the words of Del Tegtmeier, a long-time area resident and bank vice-president. Percy Harris of the East St. Louis Enterprise Community expressed enthusiasm for the idea, given that initiative's mission to create job opportunities. The Enterprise Community, along with the local Public Aid office and Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House are working on creating skills assessments of all public aid recipients, which will be very helpful in any training initiative, and can allow targeting of potential trainees for a trades training program. Mr. Harris suggested a "consortium" be created, including representatives from MCC, the unions, the city, the school district, concerned residents, and representatives of the potential trainee pool. A few interviewees expressed reservations about the city or the community college administering such a program, and a few suggested that an independent contractor be brought in. Still others mentioned the need to utilize such a program to continue empowering local residents and organizations, to build up the "trust factor" among the many entities who have similar end goals.

The potential role of public funds and the public sector in such a program was also discussed. Many expressed a certainty that state and federal funds would be available for an innovative program. Others noted the opportunity to use creative financing to leverage the funds that will be used for physical redevelopment, such as for MetroLink-related or public and private housing projects. One interviewee noted that the scarce funding available can be used to greater effect if local design and goal setting is allowed by those providing the support. Another interviewee noted that one potentially significant role for the public sector would be to require meaningful minority participation and local hiring on local projects, as a condition of bidding on construction and maintenance contracts.

Suggestions regarding who should be targeted for a construction skills training program spanned a wide gamut. Several interviewees mentioned current welfare recipients who face impending cut-off as being most in need, and yet others felt that since that group is comprised of many single mothers, it was not a good target group. For example, one person stated that young female AFDC recipients would be good candidates for training because they have not "developed bad habits" yet, as opposed to reformed addicts or high school dropouts. Another felt that dropouts, military returnees and the recently unemployed were good prospects, and that young mothers were the "least able to take advantage of" such a program. Most would agree that the ideal construction trades training scenario is to start a young person early (many mentioned high school as the ideal age group), so that he or she can follow the logical sequence from introduction to the trades through pre-apprenticeship to apprenticeship, and that any program designed for another demographic group will need to recreate that ideal sequence in some way.

Finally, interviewees were asked for their initial response to the "recycler'' model that has been designed for implementation in St. Louis as a result of the Regional Jobs Initiative. The general consensus was that it was an interesting and exciting model, allowing a basic introduction into the trades while providing a nominal wage. Larry Allen was very interested in the idea, and offered training and cost assistance should the model be utilized in East St. Louis. Percy Harris of the East St. Louis Enterprise Community also expressed a strong commitment to assisting in any effort to create a similar program or extend the same program to Illinois. He mentioned that both his office and the city CDBG office have funds for demolition. Mr. Harris also suggested that local hiring could provide some of the traffic control needed around demolition sites, which normally has to be provided by the police. Another interviewee mentioned that the county currently does most of the public-sector demolition in the area. Mr. Johnson mentioned that when the last bid proposal came out from the city for demolition work, they got 20-25 bids. For this reason, he feels that the demolition market is "saturated" with interest right now, given the current dearth of other local work.

More than one person cautioned that a steady steam of demolition work would have to be guaranteed somehow for the model to be successful, and that there would have to be a guarantee of employment at the end of the program. Tadas Kicielinski noted that very few businesses can make a career out of doing only demolition work, and that those who can are very large.

Mr. Schneider of the Intergovernmental Grants Department sees union involvement as important in the construction training aspect of the Initiative, given the irregular nature of that type of employment, the provision of benefits by unions, and their protectiveness of their own training and apprenticeship programs. John Gaal, one of Mr. Porteous' partners in the "recycler" effort, and the director of union-sponsored carpentry training programs in St. Louis, thinks the "recycler" program will work well, because it allows immediate exposure to work sites and materials, while allowing time to do training to shore up the weak math and reading skills that most of the trainees will have.

Mr. Harris did not feel that the "state line" would be an issue, and that a Missouri firm willing to implement such a program in East St. Louis would be welcomed by the city. He cautioned that they would have to be bonded, insured and sanctioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation. However, Tadas Kicielinski found the idea intriguing, but mentioned "displacement" of Illinois union laborers by such a program as a concern. He expressed doubt that the program would work without trainees fully understanding the long-term commitment needed to attain long-term benefits. He also commented about a previous program in which over $500,000 of federal funding was given to East St. Louis to do demolition and "nothing got demolished." The level of mistrust and frustration felt about East St. Louis in the region came across very clearly in his retelling of this incident, and further illuminated the need to generate frank discussion and foster cooperation based on the future, rather than on the past.


1. Chicago Rehab Network. "The Chicago Affordable Housing Fact Book: Visions for Change". page 30.

2. "20 Hot Job Tracks". U.S. News and World Report, October 28, 1996. page 99.

3. Cassimatis, Peter J. "Economics of the Construction Industry". page 7.

4. Cassimatis, Peter J. "Economics of the Construction Industry". page 4.

5. Chicago Rehab Network. "Chicago Affordable Housing and Jobs Campaign". promotional literature. 1993.

6. Chicago Rehab Network. "Chicago Affordable Housing and Jobs Campaign". promotional literature. 1993.

7. Holzer, Harry J.. "Unemployment, Vacancies and Local Labor Markets". page 15.

8. Holzer, Harry J.. "Unemployment, Vacancies and Local Labor Markets". page 16.

9. Illinois Department of Employment Security. "Mass Layoff Statistics in Illinois during the 3rd Quarter of 1996". Illinois Labor Market Review. Fall 1996. page 4.

10. United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. "They Kept Ahead of the Future". pages 1 and 2.

11. Center for Neighborhood Technology. "Common Interests". The Neighborhood Works, November/December 1996. page 17.

12. Center for Neighborhood Technology. "Common Interests". The Neighborhood Works, November/December 1996. page 20.

13. Center for Neighborhood Technology. "Employment Strategies for Urban Communities". 1996. page 15.

14. U.S. Department of Commerce. "County Business Patterns: Illinois", 1953 and 1994.

15. Reardon, Kenneth M. "State and Local Revitalization Efforts in East St. Louis, Illinois". Annals of the American Academy. May 1997. page 246.

16. "'Genius' Grant for Helping Teens Rebuild Lives". Christian Science Monitor. June 26 1996. page 15.

17. "'Genius' Grant for Helping Teens Rebuild Lives". Christian Science Monitor. June 26 1996. page 15.

18. "About Youthbuild". promotional literature. Youthbuild USA, Somerville MA.

19. "About Youthbuild". promotional literature. Youthbuild USA, Somerville MA.

20. "About Youthbuild". promotional literature. Youthbuild USA, Somerville MA.

21. "About Youthbuild". promotional literature. Youthbuild USA, Somerville MA.

22. "About Youthbuild". promotional literature. Youthbuild USA, Somerville MA.

23. "Out of a problem comes a resource". Boston Globe. May 22, 1992. page 28.

24. HUD. "Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, as Amended: The Facts". self-published brochure.

25. "Taste of Middle-Class Pay for Welfare Mothers". New York Times. February 10, 1994. page A1+.

Document author : Diane Gormery-Barnes
HTML by : Yong Wook Kim
Last modified: May 21, 1997

Chapter 4

East St. Louis Action Research Project
Refer to the ESLARP mailing address on the ESLARP home page