As usual, Akron’s mayor, Don Plusquellic, held little back as he welcomed -- and warned -- the group of 52 people about to begin their training.
“You have a responsibility to come through because you’re representing the rest of the residents over the next 20-some years to be able to go out and make sure that we can say to the whole country and especially to contractors in Ohio, ‘Yes we do have people in Akron who live here, who care about their job, who care about their community.’”
Why's it matter?
Because Akron is about to undertake the biggest public works project in its history – a $1.4 billion sewer overhaul. And when Plusquellic tried to make it a city-resident hiring program as well, he ran into a lawsuit filed by contractors.
The city’s work-around has been to threaten to make itself the contractor and to ensure a different kind of pipeline –- as much as half of the skilled tradespeople hired for the sewer construction will come from the pool of city residents.
Nothing against the 'burbs
“I don’t have anything against people in the suburbs, but when it’s our money and our jobs, we ought to be able to hire people who live right here amongst us.”
And that’s why the first class of city residents is beginning five weeks of pre-apprenticeship training today. Veronica Sims of Akron-Summit Community Action says the training will touch on everything from health and safety regulations to how to keep a personal budget when construction work inevitably ebbs and flows, "and really doing the soft skills: How do you interview? How do you get around the question of what’s with your employment gap? So you’ve been to prison, huh? How do you talk? How do you look someone in the face?
"And so it’s really about preparing them mentally and giving them the tools so they can be a good seller for themselves.”
Prepping for the unions
At the end of five weeks, many will be pitching themselves as apprentices to trade unions -- the pipe fitters, the Teamsters, the laborers, the electricians. And Akron’s director of planning and urban development, Marco Summerville, says that’s what makes this program unique. Unions, he says, have recruited for decades from a narrow circle.
“It’s very difficult to get in the unions unless you know somebody -- your neighbor’s a union member or your father-in-law. For the first time we have a large number of people who don’t have any connections to any union who have an opportunity to become a union member and make a livable wage.”
Among the hopefuls is Jeffrey Combs. He’s 25 and graduated high school – but college didn’t work out.
“I was really just switching back and forth between jobs. McDonalds, factory jobs, temp services here and there. But he became a proud new dad a week ago. And that means, "I wanted to find a better opportunity for myself and for my family, and I also want to help out the community, too.”
Another of the inaugural class is Christine Adams, the first of the hundreds of people who went through the pre-screening interviews. She says it was “pretty scary. They asked a few questions, and we had about 10 minutes to go through it all. I got three smiles, so I felt like if that was the voice, I did pretty good.”
Not smooth sailing
Most of those in the class are African-American. And Planning Director Marco Sommerville cautioned there may be tension in some unions that have traditionally been white.
“I wish I could say this is going to be easy sailing. But it’s not. And believe me, there are going to be people who don’t want to see you succeed. There are going to be peole in the unions that may not want you to succeed. The mayor made it very clear, that you’re coming in a different way.”
But Sommerville, the mayor and the other organizers maintain that that “different way” is a crucial step for the city of Akron.