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

Building Orpportunities

Executive Summary

Federal welfare reform, which was signed into law in 1996, will have disastrous effects in East St. Louis in the coming years. The employability of East St. Louis residents must be increased, and job training provision improved, if these effects are to be mitigated. Past neighborhood planning documents recognized this need even before the recent onset of legislative changes. Despite its location within a thriving metropolitan area, East St. Louis is economically and socially isolated, and is suffering the ill effects of a steady population decline, high chronic unemployment, low incomes, a decimated manufacturing and retail base, and declining property values. This report compiles research and feedback generated in interviews with area public and private sector administrators, educators and social service providers. It seeks to determine how to better utilize existing job training resources and improve the employability of East St. Louis residents, as well as how to effectively link future job training efforts with physical revitalization of the community.

In interviews, factors identified as affecting the regional employability of East St. Louis residents included the following: a lack of readily accessible living wage jobs; missing general "life skills," such as job search and workplace etiquette; weak basic skills, such as math and writing; a lack of adequate goal-setting and career guidance for young people; a lack of "non-standard" support services; and continued stereotyping and discrimination. Feedback regarding existing job training resources generated the following concerns: a current focus on quick turnaround training for low-paying occupations; low levels of motivation to pursue existing training; a lack of adequate counseling and support; and a lack of direct ties to regional employers.

Interviewees identified several issues regarding construction skills training as a potential link to physical revitalization. Construction activity in East St. Louis has been virtually non-existent for some time, though a market could be "created" through creative leveraging of public sector sources. Public policies in East St. Louis do not currently encourage maximization of local impact from redevelopment efforts. And, while construction can have the advantages of an "on-the-job" training format, high wages, and a direct link to community rebuilding, it also has disadvantages: a cyclical nature, a necessarily long training sequence, and strong union control over local job opportunities. Interviewees also noted a general misunderstanding of union apprenticeship entrance requirements, and a conflict between paying union-level wages and maintaining the affordability of an end product.

General recommendations made as a result of local feedback include the following: more aggressive pursuit of potential new local job sources, and increased support of local entrepreneurs, are needed; public sector regulations to ensure local benefit from new development should be rigorously enforced; creative leveraging of funding sources to generate job opportunities should be pursued; better basic preparation, job search guidance and assistance should be provided; and more flexible and "non-standard" support services are required. Regarding job training resources, the following is recommended: creation of a balance between short-term and long-term training orientations; increased basic skills development, as a lead-in to more focused training; and inclusion of a mentoring component and "on-the-job" work experience whenever possible. Community involvement and leadership is also seen as crucial. All of these improvement efforts should be undertaken by a coalition of concerned local citizens and empowered local entities.

Specific recommendation regarding utilization of the construction sector to create job opportunities include creation of a similar- but more focused- coalition, as well as coordination of pending local construction activity with program design. Linking construction skills training to East St. Louis revitalization efforts is seen as crucial, as is fostering a meaningful dialogue with both local building trade unions and other regional job sources. Any trades training format should include a strong general introduction to potential construction and construction-related career paths, as well as strong "on-the-job" and mentoring aspects.

While pursuing revitalization of the East St. Louis economy, efforts must be made to maximize benefit to local residents. Increased economic activity can provide job opportunities and begin to regenerate and stabilize the community on a more self-sufficient footing. Efforts to improve both employability and training resources must also focus, however, on increasing the ability of East St. Louis residents to access and obtain employment in the larger regional job market.

This report concludes with the presentation of a model for providing construction skills to East St. Louis residents, through the utilization of "on-the-job" training on locally generated construction projects. The "Building Opportunities" strategy provides a model for fostering the coordination and cooperation needed to effectively increase job opportunities for East St. Louis residents. The challenge of the impending welfare reform crisis makes pursuit of such a strategy a very important and timely undertaking.

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

Executive Summary

East St. Louis Action Research Project
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