Apprentice Program Building Her Future

Posted: July 01, 1999

This is a story of how government works.

It's not how government works every time. It's not how government works in theory. It's how it worked this one time, because, in government, every time is different.

Let's start with the finished product: Vickie Shuler.

Shuler grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing project in North Philadelphia. She still lives there, with her teen-age son.

Shuler, 38, has had a checkered work history. She's done some barbering, some security work. She served in the Army. There were times she couldn't find a job.

But she has always loved to build things and when she heard about a Philadelphia Housing Authority program that would train her in the building trades, "it was just a blessing."

Yesterday, Shuler and 27 other PHA residents graduated from the 16-week Pre-Apprenticeship Building Maintenance and Construction Trades Program, held at Tasker Homes. They will be apprentice carpenters, electricians, plumbers and painters.

For nearly all of them, it will be the best job they've ever had. Shuler, if she passes her pre-apprenticeship test in September, will go to work as a carpenter for Bok Construction.

"Someday," she said, "I'd like to build my own home."

The idea

The program that trained Shuler is modest. Just $1 million, a couple lines in the $17 billion, 896-page, 1998-99 state budget.

It began with a conversation in Mayor Rendell's office in City Hall in late 1997. Among those present: Rendell; PHA Executive Director Carl Greene; state Sen. Vince Fumo and Randy Albright, Democratic staffer with the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"It was just a side comment at the conclusion of the meeting," Albright recalled. "Carl said he had this training program in Detroit and wanted to know if he could do it here."

President Clinton had just successfully negotiated congressional passage of federal welfare-to-work funds. But that money is dispensed in Pennsylvania at the pleasure of Gov. Ridge.

"We knew money would be available, but we weren't sure we could get it," Albright said.

The money

"I think I asked for $5 million," said Greene. "I wanted to have a program that would run for more than one year. In Detroit, we trained more than 200 people in two-and-a-half years."

"He said he needed $5 million," Fumo remembered. "I said we'd work on it. But I figured on $2.5 million because, in government, you always ask for twice as much as you need."

When Gov. Ridge's proposed budget was delivered in February 1998, there was nothing in it for a PHA training program.

"Randy had figured out that $40 million of that welfare-to-work money was coming to Pennsylvania," Fumo said. "But most people weren't paying attention."

Over the next month, Fumo began negotiating with his Republican counterparts. Since Ridge is a Republican and both houses are controlled by Republicans, what leverage does Fumo have?

"Negotiations are based on longstanding relationships and trust," Fumo smiled, "and everybody knows that someday I may be in the majority."

The general idea is to keep as many people happy as you can on both sides of the aisle.

"There's never a specific quid pro quo, I'll-give-you-this-you-give-me-that," Fumo said. "What you do is exchange lists of the things you really want."

The bureaucracy

Fumo was able to convince the GOP Senate leadership, Sens. Joe Loeper and Dick Tilghman, to fund Greene's program, but not for $2.5 million. It would begin with $1 million.

As word got around about Fumo's maneuver - allocating federal money for a specific project - other legislators began inserting language in the budget for their own pet projects.

"Guys were saying, 'This is neat!' " Fumo said. "The governor's budget office was not happy. The normal procedure is they decide where the federal money goes. We were giving the governor more input than he liked."

Some of the sillier programs would be removed before the budget passed on April 22, 1998. Others would never begin because the state agencies charged with carrying out the expenditures wouldn't.

The Legislature can allocate money, but it can't force the Ridge administration to spend it. Which is why Greene's next hurdle was Feather Houstoun, secretary of public welfare. It was her agency that oversaw the welfare-to-work money.

"It's easy sometimes to put stuff in the budget and hard to get it out of the state agency," Greene explained. "After the budget passes, that's when the real work starts.

"We trekked up to Harrisburg for a visit with Feather Houstoun, where we explained this was a real program with a demonstrated ability to deliver services. She followed up with a visit to my office."

After some weeks of give-and-take, Houstoun agreed the program was a good one.

"It may be a line item in a budget, but it's my responsibility to make a judgment about the appropriateness," Houstoun said. "My role is to recognize the quality of the program."

Houstoun refused to admit that some programs the Legislature delivers are real dogs. But she did say, "Sometimes it takes longer to recognize the appropriateness. When we recognize flaws, we'll work with the Legislature to correct them."

The unions

OK, governor on board, Legislature on board, bureaucracy on board. That left the unions.

"We had a similar program already under way," said Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Trades Council. "We didn't want to be involved if it was going to be a typical government program."

The unions wanted to do the training. They insisted on screening applicants. They wanted to negotiate pay scales.

"We're the only ones who know how to develop a program like this," Gillespie said.

And so Greene and Jerry Murphy, the city's labor liaison, negotiated with Gillespie and the heads of the unions representing the four trades involved in the training.

After long hours of talks, everyone signed off. The first class began training in March. Another $1 million has been included by Gov. Ridge in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 so classes can continue.

"Now," said Gillespie, "The trick is to keep them from moving out to the suburbs."

Send e-mail to clout@phillynews.com

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