Amid rancor, PHA construction training program is back

Posted: January 07, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Tempers flared this time last year between the Philadelphia Housing Authority and unions in the building trades.

A look at what happened to 24-year-old Abdul Mujahid helps explain why.

Mujahid signed up for the PHA training program to prepare himself for a job in construction. He spent weeks learning the basics of electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry.

After graduating in 2010, he passed union tests to become an apprentice and put his name on waiting lists.

"I knew it wasn't going to be overnight, that I had to be persistent," he said.

Years passed. Nothing happened. Mujahid gave up and went to work for a Peco subcontractor, shutting off meters of delinquent customers.

Last January, PHA decided to scrap the training program for residents and start anew, angering powerful unions in the building trades.

The housing authority was spending more than $2 million a year on the pre-apprenticeship program, employing union instructors at a state-of-the-art facility in South Philadelphia.

But for the amount it was spending, PHA was not seeing results, said its president, Kelvin Jeremiah.

Of the 832 graduates since 1999, only about 400 passed union exams, and only 232 earned union membership. Fewer still were working for union contractors, he said.

The program's object, Jeremiah said, "was to give the construction industry, which has not always been welcoming of minorities, the opportunity to employ low-income individuals in the city."

"That didn't happen," he said.

After shutting down the program, PHA restarted it over the summer with new union partners and focus. The first class of 14 PHA residents graduated last month. All were hired directly by PHA.

One of them was Mujahid. He went through training a second time and now works as an apprentice at PHA, earning $12 an hour as a maintenance mechanic.

"I knew at some point a job would come through, and PHA provided it," Mujahid said. "I'm going to run with it from here."

The overhaul of pre-apprenticeship training remains a sore point with the building trades. Union officials resent being cut out of a program they helped create.

"We had a wonderful program, one of the best," said Patrick Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council. "That's where we got most of the women into the construction industry. They came from that PHA program."

John J. Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, described the old program as the "most effective" in the city.

"I have kids from PHA who have careers with Local 98 and who have not missed an hour of work since being here," he said.

Dougherty said the union had not taken on apprentices for three years because of the weak economy. "We had no work," he said.

Jeremiah said he wants the program to provide workers for PHA as well as for its contractors.

"The commitment I made a year ago was to have the pre-apprenticeship program serve as a pipeline for employment at PHA," Jeremiah said. "PHA itself was not employing its graduates."

The housing authority says it expects to provide training for up to 80 people a year.

Though it will not be possible to guarantee PHA employment for every graduate, he said the program should be used to build a pool of potential employees for PHA contractors. Federal regulations require public-housing contractors to employ a certain percentage of public-housing residents.

With the revamped program, PHA has asked only three unions - representing maintenance mechanics, laborers, and painters - to help train residents.

Samuel Staten Jr., business manager of Laborers Local 332, said under the previous program, there was no direct access to PHA jobs. "Any sane person has to know the break they got here," Staten said.

The first eight weeks of training include remedial work in math and literacy skills. Participants then receive six to 20 weeks of training, depending on what specialty they select - from painting to basic repairs or general maintenance.

Latoya Little, 30, graduated in December and now works for PHA as a maintenance mechanic. The mother of six is assigned to the authority's Spring Garden Apartments.

On the job at 8 a.m., she spent part of Thursday morning changing a leaky kitchen drain. After stints working in fast-food restaurants, she calls this her "first real job."

"PHA was willing to give me a career," Little said. "That's what I want."

215-854-5659 @j_linq

comments powered by Disqus