By Eugenia Orr

The construction industry offers life-long, life-changing careers and has the power to reduce unemployment. Despite this power to change, minority and female workers are vastly underrepresented in the construction industry, with minorities representing 20% of construction workers and women representing only 6%. From perception and stereotypes to education and training, minorities and women face barriers to entering the construction industry. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job-training and classroom instruction that lead to a solid pathway of construction employment to help overcome some of these barriers.

On April 27, the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Medicine hosted their first construction trades apprenticeship fair at the AKArama Foundation building in Woodlawn. More than 300 men, women, young adults and high school students attended, to discover the ways a trade can translate into a career from 11 trade unions and 12 workforce development agencies, as well as uncover the potential job options available.

Collectively, the University and Medical Center serve as the city’s largest South Side employer. As neighborhood partners, they are committed to ambitious workforce goals that boost diversity and expand economic opportunities for businesses and for individuals. Last spring, UChicago and UChicago Medicine expanded their commitment to increase the participation of minorities, women and local residents in construction projects.

Linda Hannah (right), program director for Chicago Women in Trades, speaks with a fair attendee.

Linda Hannah (right), program director for Chicago Women in Trades, speaks with a fair attendee.

With so many construction and interior reconstruction projects happening on campus, the University constantly receives inquiries from individuals about potential job opportunities. “We felt that it was important to host an event such as this as we acknowledge the need to assist job seekers in the community surrounding this campus to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment. Membership in the trade unions can provide the avenue to a career generating a wage that can support families and change lives,” explained Joan Archie, executive director of construction compliance for the University of Chicago Medicine.

But the fair was meant to accomplish more than just meeting UChicago’s needs. From the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, the new state-of-the-art Englewood High School slated for a fall 2019 opening at 69th Street and Normal Boulevard, and redevelopment of the old the Michael Reese Hospital site, the South Side of Chicago is experiencing an uptick in construction projects–projects in need of skilled and qualified workers.

Jasmine Simpson, at only 30 years old, has been a member of the ceramic tile installers union for more than two years. Taking a day off, Jasmine wanted to encourage and recruit others to join the tile layer’s apprenticeship program. “Every member of our entire union is working, and there are still projects in need of trained and skilled ceramic tile finishers,” Jasmine exclaimed “I love what I do, and I love to attend fairs like this one to recruit people like myself to join the industry, doing a job that is fulfilling and rewarding and pays very well.”

One enthusiastic attendee was Gary Clay, who received some training on installing tile from a family member in construction. Finding a love and natural talent for the detail needed to install tile, Clay attended to find more information and learn how to become a union tiler. “I love tiling, no two jobs are ever the same, and there is something new to learn every day,” Clay expressed. “I’m ready to make this my job for the rest of my life.”

The fair attracted job seekers of all ages – students from the Architectural Construction Engineering (ACE) Technical Charter High School were the youngest fair-goers, gaining valuable information on potential career alternatives post-high school. “I like the idea of being able to build something with my hands,” 15-year-old Kezia Miller said. “I’m interested in nursing and construction. Working in construction will help me pay for nursing school and in both careers I can help others.”

Representation for women was a major goal for this fair and for Linda Hannah, program director for Chicago Women in Trades. “Our program provides women with the preliminary skills they need to excel in the union apprentice programs,” explained Hannah. “Over the course of 12 weeks we prepare them with the physical acumen and technical details needed for acceptance into the apprentice program of their choice.”

Yet, while equal representation for women and minorities is vital, it is also critical for the workforce to have the skills and expertise to perform above and beyond. “We are working to provide the most skilled workers available, who just happen to be women or minority,” said Jonathan Jones, business representative and trustee to the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters. “With each person we change families, providing ways for people to provide better lives for themselves and their loved ones.”

The enthusiasm for the fair was felt on both sides of the table. The represented unions were:

  • Ceramic Tile Contractors’ Association of Chicago, Inc.
  • Chicago Pipefitters Local 597
  • Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130
  • Chicagoland Laborers’ District Council Training & Apprenticeship Fund
  • International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
  • International Union of Operating Engineers
  • International Union of Painters and Allied Trades
  • Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 73
  • International Brotherhood of Carpenters
  • International Association of Heat and Insulation Workers and Allied Trades

“This was a great event; the advertisement brought out the right crowd and we met with some enthusiastic potential trainees,” said Dave Sylvester, an organizer for Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 73.

“This is the first time we’ve hosted a fair like this, and we could not be more delighted with the success. We had more than 300 attendees, many of whom were lined before we opened the doors. Clearly, this kind of opportunity is in demand in our community. The fair was an excellent way for the University to leverage its resources to benefit our neighbors,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, director of community economic development initiatives in the Office of Civic Engagement.

In addition to the unions, various workforce development agencies that work closely with trade unions were represented at the fair to increase the number of qualified applicants for trade careers:

  • Access United
  • BSD Industries
  • Chicago Women in Trades
  • Construction Industry Service Organization
  • Dawson Technical Institute
  • Hope Works Community Development
  • POAH Woodlawn Resource Center
  • Project PRIDE
  • Paul Community Development Ministries
  • Turner School of Construction Management
  • YWCA Metropolitan Chicago

The construction trades apprenticeship fair was one of a variety of initiatives undertaken jointly by the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, Facilities Services, and the Medical Center to increase the number of minorities, women and local residents working on campus construction projects.

For more information about construction apprenticeship programs, visit the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council.