Apprenticeship is a time-honored tradition of the construction trades. Through apprenticeship, aspiring carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons, pipefitters and other trades professionals learn as they work under the direct supervision of seasoned mentors, honing their proficiency and working toward mastery.
However, the system can be difficult to enter and navigate for those without close ties to someone already in the trades to provide guidance. That’s where UnderConstruction (UCP) comes in.
“We help fill the gap between shop class and taking the first steps to careers in the construction trades,” said Mary Desjarlais, assistant director, UCP.
The Twin Cities program provides paid summer internships for students ages 15-21, funded by youth employment programs Step Up in Minneapolis and Right Track in St. Paul. During six to eight weeks, students build residential projects, mostly garages and decks, in conjunction with city renewal initiatives. Crews of 12 are provided with 2 supervisors, a youth supervisor and a construction supervisor.
“If you have no family members in the trades, real life job experience can be hard to come by,” said Desjarlais. “We help by providing real life job experience, and guidance to next steps like education and apprenticeships,” she said.
UCP recruits talent from inner city high schools, working with teachers and counselors to identify good candidates for the program, said Desjarlais. While schools like Como and Roosevelt maintain good shop courses, many schools no longer offer shop, she added.
The program takes a professional approach that starts before the students enter a jobsite, and provides a range of relevant work skills.
“We make them turn in resumes, panel interview and assess them,” said Desjarlais. “They are taught how to be a good employee, work ethic, as well as hands on exposure to trades work.” UCP crews receive OSHA 10 safety training and certification from the Department of Labor and Industry (and had an accident-free summer in 2014). In addition to gaining relevant experience, UCP participants gain exposure to other trades on the job, such as concrete workers pouring slab. Fridays are field trip days, visiting other trades like sheet metal fitters, pipe fitters, sprinkler fitters, etc. This year’s tours also included a visit to the Saints stadium jobsite.
The program has grown over its 10 years. UCP has about 260 graduates: About a quarter of those enrolled in 2014 were female, and most are urban, students of color. During the 2014 summer UCP ran three crews, two in St. Paul and one in Minneapolis.
As the program expands, so do its alumni’s horizons. Some of the graduates of the program are using the introduction in construction trades as a stepping stone to other construction-related work. One UCP alumna graduated in construction management from Mankato State University, becoming the first Hmong project manager in U.S.
Another UCP alumna became the first person in her family to go to college, and has graduated as an architect.
Despite all the doors as UCP is opening, the program does close a few, too. As one graduate has commented, the experience of working for UCP has spoiled her for desk jobs.
“I realized I wanted to do hands-on work,” she said.