#137 Sep/Oct 2004

Breaking Ground

In July 2000, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision on a 30-year-old case, Abbott v. Burke. The decision mandated the state to fund the renovation or replacement of […]

In July 2000, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision on a 30-year-old case, Abbott v. Burke. The decision mandated the state to fund the renovation or replacement of public schools in New Jersey’s poorest school districts, at a cost expected to exceed $12 billion over the next 10 to 15 years. Community and economic development advocates realized that this expenditure, the largest in the state’s history, could produce jobs and business opportunities for residents of surrounding communities.

New Jersey state policy requires that public construction projects employ a workforce that mirrors local workforce demographics. To make this possible, the policy allows up to half of one percent of construction costs to be used for outreach and training of minorities and women. Though public-sector construction projects have not made good use of this resource, looking forward, the volume and duration of these school construction projects offer a rare opportunity to change that.

Some economists have referred to the construction sector as the “new manufacturing” because of its middle-income career opportunities and because the entry requirements are within reach of many urban residents. With school construction, downtown development, university expansion, port expansion and housing, the construction industry is booming in northern New Jersey, and major construction activity is expected to exceed $40 billion over the next decade. But despite this, the demand for workers for these projects doesn’t guarantee jobs for local residents; in construction, skilled workers travel to where the work is. Over the past several years, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), a Newark-based urban research and advocacy organization, has worked to influence this field and create new prospects for local women and minorities.

In fall 2000, NJISJ began to examine the economic development potential of the school construction program to find ways to channel local residents into the construction trade unions. Two things were known. The first was that the current union membership was aging, and new members are no longer found among relatives and friends, as was the tradition. And the second was that unions have a history of excluding minorities and women, or of making it almost impossible for them to join. In an industry that demands hard, physical labor and exposure to harsh weather, finding skilled and capable workers is not always easy. But with the current boom in construction, it is critical for the industry to maintain an adequate level of qualified workers. Because of this increase in construction activity, local developers have already begun to voice concerns about the ability of trade unions to deliver enough workers to complete their projects.

From their early discussions, NJISJ developed an academic program designed to help Newark residents pass the unions’ entrance tests. Individual trade organizations provide paid, on-the-job training through their own apprenticeship programs (entry-level training positions where the apprentices train under the supervision of skilled construction workers, called journeyworkers), so this academic program would focus on preparing individuals to meet all of the requirements necessary to become apprentices. It is a program modeled after Construction Skills 2000, a successful program undertaken by the New York City vocational school system and several construction trade unions and contractors, which trained over 700 new trade union members, nearly all minorities and women.

Creating the Partnership
Historically, suspicion existed between Essex County’s public school districts and the construction trade groups. School district personnel looked unfavorably at the unions’ history of excluding the largely minority graduates of its urban high schools. The few trade unions that had tried recruiting in the high schools weren’t satisfied with the quality and lack of commitment of the students they were supposed to train. To address these concerns, NJISJ hosted a series of meetings, in the hope of establishing new relationships and finding a solution to both parties’ needs. The school district wanted to offer career opportunities to its graduates; and the trade unions wanted qualified and motivated candidates for union membership.

NJISJ pitched the concept of its academic program, and the idea of a partnership, to the Essex County Building and Construction Trades Council (ECBCTC), reassuring the ECBCTC members that they weren’t asking them to lower or modify their current entry requirements. This new program was to prepare students to meet or exceed those standards and be familiar with how construction trade unions work. Shortly after this proposal was presented, a steering committee of union leaders, community organizations, the building contractors’ association and school district staff was formed. The committee was responsible for deciding the program’s curriculum, selection policies and its implementation.

NJISJ piloted the Essex County Construction Careers Program in summer 2001. For eight weeks, the program exposed participants to the construction trades and taught them math, reading and workplace readiness skills. NJISJ and its partners screened and selected the program participants – mostly black and Hispanic men and women from the four poorest school districts in Essex County. Half of those selected were recent high school graduates and half were adults. Going beyond basic academic preparation, partners from Newark public schools even provided driver training and transportation to the Department of Motor Vehicles testing sites. ECBCTC took participants to visit apprentice schools and the Building Contractors Association of New Jersey took them to construction sites.

While ECCCP partners address some of the barriers to joining the trades, such as driver training and academic preparation, several major issues still prevent urban residents from joining.


  • Getting to job/trade training centers can be burdensome, because many recruiting and training programs are not accessible by public transportation. This is especially problematic in Newark, where over 40 percent of households depend on public transportation.



  • Because many school guidance counselors are unfamiliar with the construction trades and the income/employment opportunities they offer, the construction sector is seldom presented as a high-quality career choice. Apprenticeship programs receive little recognition, even though they require a multiyear commitment (like college), offer on-the-job, paid training and provide internationally recognized skills.



  • Nearly all the trade unions require members to have a valid driver’s license. In New Jersey, license suspension policies have a disproportionately negative effect on low-income urban residents; many are unable to pay the fines for parking tickets and other non-moving violations. (Through a matching fund established by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Schools Construction Corporation (DOL/SCC), ECCCP helps participants pay their fines and restore suspended licenses. NJISJ, www.njisj.org, has produced a manual to navigate the license restoration process.)



  • It is particularly difficult for women to join the trades because of the lack of affordable childcare that can be coordinated with the early and late shifts of a typical construction workday.



  • Joining a trade union may have financial barriers, such as the requirement to purchase tools and pay union dues before membership is granted.



  • Although many believe that having a criminal record disqualifies them from joining the trades, construction is one of the few employment sectors that offers excellent job and earning opportunities to people with criminal records.



  • There is still the perception that the construction trade unions are closed to minorities and women.


Because training and outreach funds under the half-percent set-aside had not been used effectively on past public construction projects, the Economic Development Administration established a funding source of up to $30 million, administered by DOL/SCC, to be used for teaching local workers the skills needed for future school construction jobs. In 2002, DOL/SCC began funding ECCCP to ensure that there would be a pool of qualified workers for the school construction projects that began this spring.

Since it began, ECCCP has graduated 10 classes. The program receives more qualified applicants than it can accept. Eighty-eight program graduates have been placed in the construction trades, and some have decided to go to college or join the military. After completing the program, participants can still benefit from the ECCCP affiliation. Graduates who have been placed are able to obtain loans from a revolving-loan fund through the La Casa Federal Credit Union (operated by La Casa de Don Pedro CDC) to purchase items such as a used car. They continue to receive academic support and information from the program staff and can take tutorials to keep skills sharp and prepare for tests. ECCCP is now the “first source” of many trade unions looking for entry-level workers.

What’s Next?
Every day NJISJ continues to learn how to improve their construction careers program and to make it more responsive to industry employers as well as to Newark’s residents. The program’s successes and challenges have also demonstrated a need for a much broader spectrum of training programs to better link interested individuals to the construction industry.

This multifaceted infrastructure is beyond the capability of any one entity. Nationally, examples of construction projects that have provided sustained benefits to local residents have done so not only by establishing appropriate programs and services, but also by mobilizing public- and private-sector funding, creating and/or leveraging public policies (see Sidebar) and developing mechanisms to ensure strong communication and local accountability. In Newark, as in other parts of the country, many must come to the table in a community of shared (although not always congruent) interest and collaboration in order to develop workable solutions.

Leveraging The Policy Debate

With the significant public school construction planned for New Jersey as an outcome of the Abbott decision, state advocates wanted to make it possible for local workers to be hired for these projects. Their efforts led to legislation calling for project labor agreements (PLAs) in public-sector building projects such as Abbott District school construction to encourage local hiring. PLAs are comprehensive hiring agreements among construction partners – the public-sector employer, contractors and subcontractors – that spell out the basic labor terms and conditions in advance. The legislation calls for PLAs to be used for any public works project in excess of $5 million in construction costs. A number of state projects already have PLAs in place for their construction projects, including those of the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation (SCC).

Although some criticize the agreements for favoring organized labor, PLAs do offer a means for economic development by increasing local employment opportunities. The Coalition for Our Children’s Schools, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, the Urban and Public Policy Institute and the Newark-based Education Law Center, among others, have supported strengthening these agreements by requiring a ratio of one apprentice for every three journeyworkers on job sites and requiring that at least 50 percent of the apprentices be first-year, minorities or women. With these kinds of agreements in place, more opportunities for local residents will become available.

Collaborative Opportunities
PLAs are only part of the picture in expanding employment opportunities. A full solution requires active support from a range of corporate, social and political interests. NJISJ, with the Newark Alliance, which represents the city’s largest employers, began an organizing effort with the construction trade unions, developers, the Newark Workforce Investment Board, some corporate institutions, intermediary organizations, community- and faith-based organizations, funders, and local, county and state governments.

Referred to as the Greater Newark Construction Opportunity Collaborative (GNCOC), the group is committed to establishing policies that open industry gates to qualified workers: programs and support that will increase the number of qualified workers and effective monitoring, reporting and enforcement.

To achieve this, GNCOC would like to

  • involve the Newark and Essex County One-Stop Career Centers and Workforce Investment Boards in the construction sector;
  • identify and develop programs that prepare local residents for long-term employment challenges;
  • create a way for skilled individuals to enter the trade unions;
  • launch a public relations effort to educate people about the construction industry;
  • create a specialized high school construction academy that would prepare students to enter into the construction trade, as well as prepare college-bound students interested in architecture, construction management, finance and engineering;
  • maximize the provisions in the SCC project labor agreement that require the use of apprentices on school construction sites and
  • incorporate long-term efforts that will focus on the concerns of small, local, minority- and women-owned businesses that want to participate in the construction sector.

This GNCOC initiative is in the very early implementation stage but it has the potential to create policies and programs that support public works and private construction projects that will spur local economic development. To succeed, it must remain committed to eliminating the barriers that have excluded women and minorities from the opportunities provided by the construction industry.


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