DETROIT - For some youths in the city, the path to a potential career in the building trades could start with boarding up the schools.
The mixed-blessing task of sealing and making safe 57 schools in the city is being undertaken by Opportunity Detroit - Youth and Trades Board-Up Program. The program is putting to work about 75 youths who live in the city, potentially creating a pathway to a union apprenticeship.
"I like working with my hands and I've learned a lot," said Detroiter Kevin Burts, 22, who was on the crew sealing up the former Holcomb Elementary School on the city's west side. " I'm pursuing a career in carpentry; this is definitely a dream job for me and I'm trying to learn all the skills I can."
Labor unions have been ratcheting up extensive outreach and recruitment programs in recent years in an effort to bring more young people into the trades.
The program is a collaboration between Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. (DESC), the Detroit Building Authority, skilled trades unions, and Detroit-based Jenkins Construction. Funds for the employment of board-up crews of abandoned schools that have closed with the exodus of Detroit residents are provided by the federal government, corporations, and private foundations.
"More than anything, we want to get these young people comfortable on jobsites, and an environment where they can learn" said Chris Prater, a Carpenters Local 1067 member and a project manager for Jenkins Construction.
His brother Rodney Prater, a 25-year carpenter employed by Jenkins, said a crew of 10 takes about four days to board up a typical school.
"Maybe 40-50 percent of these kids are going to be candidates for an apprenticeship," he said. "The work is mostly about putting boards up in windows, with framing and precision cutting. But it's more than that. It's about teaching safety, tools, material handling, jobsite etiquette, professionalism. What we do and why we do it. Because if they're going to be apprentices, those are going to be fundamental requirements."
Last fall, Detroit Public Schools transferred 57 vacant schools to the city in exchange for the forgiveness of $11.6 million in debt. The city is assessing the condition of each school it received in the transfer, many of which have been stripped of all valuables. The schools, while empty, are still important symbols in the neighborhood.
"It's great, real-world experience for these kids," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, a sponsor of the program. "And while boarding them up hardly means they won't be torn down, at least it stops the cancer from spreading a little bit in these neighborhoods. It keeps out the elements and provides some hope that the buildings can eventually be reused."Work is expected to continue through the end of the year.
"The work is kind of easy, but it's fun," said crew member Anthony Samuels, 19, who has worked in carpentry through Job Corps. "But I am learning stuff that will hopefully lead to an apprenticeship with the union. That's where I want to be."