The Los Angeles Black Worker Center and its union partners have created a three-month program designed to get more African Americans into the construction trades and keep them there.

The Black Leadership in Green Construction Institute (BLING) began last Friday with a class of about 13 people, and the overarching goal of the program is to give individuals the resources needed to pass the entrance tests and provide them with the soft skills to pass the various interviews they might be required to face in order to obtain a construction trades job.

But BLING goes beyond those basics and also trains participants to be leadership advocates who can get into position of authority within unions and who can talk to politicians and others about the type of policies that need to be in place to benefit Blacks.

The BLING Institute also helps Black workers connect with other African Americans in the construction trades, who can serve as mentors to assist them in understanding and navigating the sometimes turbulent waters.

“At the Sheet Metal Union, we have an organization in the union–the African American Sheet Metal Workers–which is a network of Black sheet metal workers who stay in touch with each other, give tips on work opportunities and give each other advice,” explained Will Scott, one of the mentors in the BLING Institute.

Scott calls BLING the missing connector, and describes his group’s previous attempts to get more young Blacks into the trade.

There was mass failure, said Scott of the 30-some applicants they worked with. He said they were primarily tripped up by the entrance exam, which requires an understanding and mastery of algebra.

“There really and truly aren’t a lot of people giving out tons of money to help Black folks get into construction; no one is doing specifically Black people; no one is looking out for the Black community,” added Shomari Davis, a business rep with the International Brotherhood of electrical Workers (IBEW, Local 11).

Davis said the IBEW minority caucus also began working to get more minorities into the trades, and he personally worked with a tutoring program designed to help potential applicants pass the entrance test.

But what he found is that many Blacks did not know where to apply, how to apply and what to apply for, and then there is the issue of retention.

“There are a number [of Black workers] in the construction trades who have decades of experience and are politically, socially and morally invested in the community, but they’re not making it from the apprentice stage to the job site, or they may get onto a job site and stay about three to four days. They have not had stability and are not respected as folks who are going to be in the industry a long time,” explained Richard Stevenson of the Black Worker Center, who coordinated the mentor and mentee aspect of BLING. “There is discrimination at a lot of levels of the process, quite honestly,” added Stevenson, who noted that the Black Worker Center, in addition to compiling a Black construction worker registry, also has been collecting stories and doing research on some of the discrimination these workers face.

The impact of instability and retention challenges have been particularly obvious in this latest recession, say the construction experts, who point out that many Black workers with years of experience have not been able to find jobs.

They said part of that is attributable to the lack of African American in supervisory positions on construction work sites, some has to do with the reality that people tend to be more comfortable working with people who look like them. There is also the way jobs are obtained–through the dispatch system, through the union hall or by “hustling.”

According to Davis, the electrical union utilizes the dispatch system, where laid-off workers go back to the union hall and sign up for the out-of-work list and then come down to wait for job orders to come in. Jobs are given out based on the order people appear on the list.

Sheet metal workers call in and put themselves on the out-of-work list, and workers are supposed to be called from the top of the list down until all jobs are filled.

In those unions that use the hustling system–iron workers, carpenters, and laborers, for example–a worker finds a job site and has to convince whoever does the hiring to take them on.

One of the things BLING will teach its participants, is how to utilize each of these hiring systems to their best advantage.

Among the key projects the Black Worker Center is hoping the BLING Institute will impact is the Crenshaw-LAX light rail. Earlier this year, the unions were among those celebrating the completion of a project labor agreement with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), and one of the tenets of that agreement was to hire a diverse and local population of workers
Davis said the diversity language was very carefully crafted to ensure that Blacks, foster youth, women and other individuals would have the best opportunity to be identified and hired for the project.

In addition to working on such projects, BLING grads will be able to talk with policymakers to discuss the success of these efforts.