Kevin Riordan: Training program gets Camden residents in construction project

Posted: November 01, 2011

Rising dramatically on an entire block of Broadway in downtown Camden, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University looks impressive.

What is even more impressive is that 40 Camden residents are among the 190 people who are building it.

In 30 years of reporting about the city, I've heard plenty of well-intentioned promises about how such projects will provide work for people who live in Camden.

And in all my visits to job sites for publicly funded construction in the city, where the population has been majority minority for more than a generation, I've rarely seen blacks and Latinos in hard hats.

Until now.

"We were determined to change the paradigm," says Susan Bass Levin, president and chief executive officer of the Cooper Foundation.

"We needed to figure out how to make it happen," she adds. "It wasn't easy."

Cooper board chairman George E. Norcross 3d, whose name rarely appears without the descriptive "power broker" attached, was committed to the effort, Bass Levin says. Mayor Dana L. Redd also was eager to have residents on the job.

Cooper University Hospital, which is partners with Rowan in the medical school, worked with the Camden County Improvement Authority and the Union Organization for Social Service (UOSS) to create a "feeder" system that has prepared local residents for apprenticeships with the building-trade unions.

Charles Miller and Bland Tibbs are among the newest graduates of the 400-hour training program, which focuses on basic skills such as math as well as preparation for job interviews.

They are apprentices - Miller with the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers Local 30 in Philadelphia, and Tibbs with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351 in Folsom, Atlantic County.

"I just want to get a career going," says Miller, 26, a father of two who lives in the Parkside section and has most recently worked in a warehouse. Ditto for Tibbs, a Centerville father of four and an Army veteran who has been involved in restaurant management.

"On this job so far, I've been running underground pipe and pulling wire," says Tibbs, 47. "I'm learning a skill I can take anywhere."

Hands-on experience is missing from some other training programs.

In many cases, "you've had the program in place and funded, [but] there haven't been opportunities in the field," says Mike Hagarty, the Improvement Authority's director of project management.

"People have graduated," he adds, "but they aren't able to go to a job site."

The training costs $5,600 per student, says Robert Schiavinato, president of the UOSS. Funding sources include the U.S. Department of Labor and the Improvement Authority.

The process brings the trade unions fully into the picture. "It's another avenue . . . to spot talent in Camden and launch careers in the unions," says Schiavinato.

It can also be seen as healing, says Dr. Paul Katz, dean of the medical school. "Part of our responsibility is to help get the city back on its feet. The future of this city is going to be in putting people back to work."

Not all of the Camden residents involved with the medical school have come through the feeder program.

"We've had meetings to encourage Camden businesses to be vendors and suppliers" to be part of the project, Bass Levin says.

The preparatory program also will help fill apprenticeships when the Cooper University Hospital cancer center breaks ground in March.

The $139 million medical school will have the capacity for 400 students and is scheduled for completion in June.

Miller looks forward to the day.

"I helped build something that's going to be here for a long time," he says. "It's a nice thing to show your kids."

Kevin Riordan:

Hospital, unions, and a Camden County team help prepare Camden residents for careers in the building trades:

Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845,, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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