In a bid to expand options for its high school graduates, the Philadelphia school district signed an agreement last week with the local building-trades council that will create at least 250 paid apprenticeships in the construction industry.
District and union leaders hailed the deal as an expansion of job opportunities for young people, a boost for the local economy, and a way to diversify the largely white ranks of the city’s building trades. Officials also noted that it could help supply a steady labor source for the district’s $1.7 billion capital-improvement program.
James E. Nevels, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, said the agreement with the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO is “an enormous breakthrough” for the district’s 205,000 predominantly African-American students, affording them the chance to land secure, well-paying jobs.
“It has been almost impossible for young people in our school district to gain access to the trades,” he said in an interview. “To have [this] opportunity is incredible. I believe we are about to create a new middle class in Philadelphia of highly competent, highly paid tradespeople.”
Mr. Nevels joined Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, school district Chief Executive Officer Paul G. Vallas, and local union leaders at a June 7 signing ceremony.
The agreement calls for the creation of 250 to 425 apprenticeships in such trades as bricklaying, painting, plumbing, and carpentry during the next four years. Apprentices will earn about $14 an hour, plus full medical and retirement benefits, in the three- to four-year programs.
They must pass an exam to secure union membership. With additional years’ experience, the craftspeople stand to earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year, said Pat Gillespie, the business manager of the trades council, which represents 42 member unions offering the apprenticeships.
“It will help students choose a career path at an earlier stage of their educational process,” Mr. Gillespie said in an interview. “Maybe in 9th or 10th grade, they will decide to try, rather than be a doctor, to be a carpenter. It will also help us find good candidates.”
Mr. Nevels had pushed for the program. He said too little progress had been made since 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of labor developed a plan to diversify Philadelphia’s trade unions.
“There’s been a problem with inertia, things being done the way they’ve always been done,” he said. “That’s changing now.”
During discussions leading to the agreement, Mr. Nevels had hinted that the trade unions could find it more difficult to win district building contracts if they did not diversify their ranks, The Philadelphia Daily News reported.
In conjunction with the apprenticeship program, the district is working with the trades council to develop coursework that will prepare students for employment in the trades, officials said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Phila. Unions to Create Apprenticeships for Students