Objective: This case study highlights the Building Pathways program, a pre-apprenticeship program launched in 2011 to help increase the number of low-income women and minorities in Boston’s traditionally white, male-dominated construction industry. The rigorous 6-week program provides candidates with an introduction to all trades and prepares them for the limited number of highly-competitive apprenticeship opportunities available through Boston’s union halls.
Major Participants: Building Pathways, the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, the Boston Housing Authority, Action for Boston Community Development and the Construction Institute.
Background: As a busy city with lots of development, Boston has long been a haven for blue-collar construction workers. Yet the construction, housing and real estate (CHRE) cluster has been largely dominated by white men—a fact that remains a reality today. This poses a problem for construction companies working on projects within Boston city limits: the Boston Resident Jobs Policy, an ordinance dating back 35 years, requires all construction companies to demonstrate good faith efforts to ensure that a minimum of 50 percent of all hours work go to Boston residents, 25 percent to minorities and 10 percent to women. The ordinance set these goals to bring the industry more in line with the demographics of the city as a whole.
Shortly after the ordinance was passed, the industry made strides toward these goals: in 1993, 44 percent of all construction jobs were awarded to Boston residents, 38 percent to minorities, and 2.8 percent to women. The biggest success was surpassing the minority hiring goal, but more needed to be done to help companies reach the other targets. By 2008, numbers across all three categories dropped: only 32 percent of jobs went to Boston residents, 30 percent to minorities and two percent to women.
During this time, (now-Boston Mayor) Marty Walsh was rising through the ranks of the Laborers Local 223 union. In 2011, he was elected as head of the Building and Construction Trades of the Metropolitan District, a position he held until resigning to run for Mayor. As head of the building trades, Walsh worked with the Boston Housing Authority to establish Building Pathways, a pre-apprentice program aimed at connecting those underrepresented in the industry (namely, women and minorities) with opportunities in the building trades. This program replaced another pre-apprenticeship program that had stalled and suffered from weak organization. Importantly, unlike the prior program, the Building Pathways program established a formal agreement with the local unions to guarantee that program graduates are given preference for apprenticeship programs.
How it Works: Building Pathways is a six-week program that combines classroom and hands-on learning to provide students with the occupational skills and job readiness skills needed to excel in the state-registered Building Trades apprentice program. The first week is primarily dedicated to soft skill training, including resume writing, interviewing skills, work-place problem solving and effective communication. The second week begins to introduce hard skills, such as instruction about the types and components of a construction project, workplace safety, basic construction math, blueprint reading, various construction tools and workers’ rights. These skills are engrained during weeks three through six, in which students visit each of the trades and conduct hands-on projects at each of the apprenticeship training centers. The program integrates field trips to active construction sites to provide exposure to the trades in real-time. Upon graduation, the Construction Institute places students into apprenticeship programs or jobs in the field.
The program is provided at no cost to the participants, and each student receives a free set of tools and work boots.
Building Pathways only accepts 15 students per cohort. As such, the application process is rigorous. A candidate must meet minimum age, education level and physical fitness requirements to apply, and be able to pass a drug test. Initially, candidates also had to be Boston Housing Authority residents or Boston residents who met the Section 3 income requirements for low- and very-low income; recently the program has opened its doors to residents from cities outside of Boston.
Those who meet the initial entry requirements are then invited to Assessment Day. Assessment Day includes a series of tests, including a drug test, physical aptitude test and the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), which evaluates a person’s reading, math and language abilities. Of the roughly 400 candidates who initially express interest in the Building Pathways program each session, only 40 to 50 will make it through Assessment Day to the panel interview. During this final stage, candidates are asked a series of questions by a panel that includes Building Pathways staff and experienced construction industry personnel. The interview portion helps to assess a person’s dedication and identify any obstacles that may impede a candidate’s success in the program.
Results for Local Economy: In less than four years, more than 125 low-income 125 residents have graduated from the Building Pathways program. More than 85 percent of graduates have been placed in union apprenticeships and jobs across 17 different trades. Over half of all graduates are women. For the first time in the 35-year history of the Boston Resident Jobs Policy, a construction project (the Integrated Sciences Complex at the University of Massachusetts-Boston) has met all diversity targets, including the 10 percent requirement for women’s work hours.
Citywide, diversity has increased across all three metrics since measured in 2008. In 2014, 30 percent of all construction project hours went to Boston residents, 31 percent to minorities and 4.4 percent to women.
Building Pathways has been cited at the national level as a model worth scaling up; it has already been replicated in New Hampshire.
Remaining Challenges: While construction companies have made notable improvements since Building Pathways launched, there is still substantial progress to be made before reaching the ordinance’s Boston resident (50 percent) and women (10 percent) hiring goals. The city is in the midst of such a development boom that all construction companies have expressed trouble meeting the ordinance’s hiring goals given a shortage of skilled labor; firms are looking to hire any qualified candidate, regardless of residency, race or gender.
At first glance, the obvious solution to addressing the need for a stronger workforce pipeline is to expand the Building Pathways program. However, there has been increased competition for union apprenticeships. Many vocational schools have launched pre-apprenticeship programs in recent years. Building Pathways has committed to training fewer people, but to train them exceptionally well in order to secure placement in the union halls.
Other obstacles to expanding the Building Pathways program include the rigidity of funding sources and the ability to find highly-motivated candidates. For example, one funding source stipulated that those with college degrees are ineligible for Building Pathways. Yet there have been instances in which otherwise highly qualified candidates have expressed interested in Building Pathways. In this case, Building Pathways has to find creative funding solutions to ensure those who are most deserving are able to enroll in the program. In that same vein, the program’s rigor has made finding motivated candidates a challenge.
Lessons Learned: The program’s success relies on two critical factors. The first is Building Pathways’ ability to train employees so exceptionally well that unions continue seek out Building Pathways’ graduates. Many unions were initially skeptical of this training program, and as a result, only committed to accepting a certain number of graduates in to apprenticeship programs each cycle. Building Pathways had to provide to the unions early on that its graduates would be significantly more prepared for apprenticeships than the average applicant. To date, Building Pathways has done just that, and as a result, the union halls regularly recruit from the program.
A second notable feature of the program is the depth of its local relationships. In many cases, the timing of training does not coincide with a trade’s apprentice application period. This may leave Building Pathways graduates with a multi-month gap between training and enrollment apprenticeship programs. The Program Coordinator has built a strong relationship with the unions in order to place graduates on jobs as soon as possible, even outside of the formal apprenticeships. For instance, some graduates obtain summer cards, which allow them to begin working on jobs with subcontractors. Similarly, the Program Coordinator has developed deep relationships with individual construction companies; oftentimes, these companies will sponsor Building Pathways graduates in order to move them into union halls more expeditiously. It is often because of these strong connections that Building Pathways graduates find opportunities in the industry soon after graduation.