Kevin Riordan: Failsafe program teaches Camden residents skills at construction sites

Yocontalie "Connie" Jackson,Failsafe director, and (from left) construction manager Daryl Holsey, Ulysses Grant, and Darrin Ferguson outside the new seniors apartments. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Yocontalie "Connie" Jackson,Failsafe director, and (from left) construction manager Daryl Holsey, Ulysses Grant, and Darrin Ferguson outside the new seniors apartments. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (Yocontalie "Connie" Jackson,)
Posted: March 15, 2012

The blueprints for a seniors residential complex in Camden have shown Darrin Ferguson the way toward a career.

"I've been unemployed for a while, and just looking at the plans and being out in the field have been great for me," says the father of three, who is shadowing construction-management professionals on the job.

Standing in the handsome lobby of the just-finished seniors apartments on Ferry Avenue, Ferguson declares, "This got me wanting to work again."

That's music to the ears of private consultant Yocantalie "Connie" Jackson, whose Failsafe program offers public-housing tenants and others a chance to earn a $200 weekly stipend while learning marketable skills at construction sites in Camden.

Applicants must be 18, have a high school diploma or GED, and live in the city. They are paid by the contractors.

"We started last year, and so far we've had between 10 and 15 of my students shadowing," says Jackson, whose program also includes eight weeks of classroom instruction.

Her firm, which she founded in downtown Camden in 2002, partnered with the Camden County Improvement Authority to place participants at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and Ferry Avenue building projects.

The latter is being built by Conifer, a real estate development and management company based in Rochester, N.Y.

"We do a lot of work in urban areas, and generally, cities want to see some sort of local [resident] participation in construction projects," says Charles M. Lewis, a vice president at Conifer's Mount Laurel offices.

"We've worked with a lot of these programs, with varying degrees of success. But Connie's is the first one I'm aware of that's focused on construction management," Lewis says.

"We gave it a try, and we're very happy with it - so happy with it that we'd like to work with her again.

"I want to get the credit for hiring local," he adds. "But I also want something that really works . . . that really makes a difference for these folks."

Ulysses Grant, 21, lives at Roosevelt Manor and is shadowing at the medical school. He likes the idea of combining class time with on-the-job training.

"You don't know until you're there," Grant says.

"The first thing I learned was safety. As I progressed, I started to learn how to do reports, inspections, daily quality control, and documentation, including photos. I learned about repair tickets.

"Construction workers have a language that they use," he adds. "On the job, they were speaking stuff I didn't understand. You have to adapt to their language."

Blueprints are another challenge, notes Daryl Holsey, the construction manager whom Ferguson shadowed.

"You have to teach them how to see in 3-D, how to see a plan and envision the building," says Holsey, 50, who grew up in Camden and lives in Voorhees.

"When you start a building, of course, there's nothing here. I try to give them the aspect of seeing the room before it's done. That's a special skill."

Ferguson says his greatest challenge was "visualizing the building" from blueprints.

Being in the lobby, with tenants loading the elevators with their belongings a few steps away, is "a great feeling," he adds. "This place is so beautiful."

As a student, "I was always looking up a lot. I was looking at the ducts, checking the pipes. . . . I was always in the ceiling."

Ferguson and others "learn what to look for, to make sure that work is being done correctly." They also make contacts in the business. Entry-level construction management positions such as safety inspector can pay $30,000 or more, Jackson says.

"We hope these guys will get hired."

Only one student so far has found a full-time job. But Grant is optimistic.

"Without experience, no one is going to trust you," he says. "I'm getting experience."

Says Ferguson, "I just want to be part of the workforce again."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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