For most New Yorkers, high school doesn’t involve welding or building bathrooms, but for the hundreds of students at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy, and the many schools like it, what students learn in their teen years puts them on a direct path to lucrative, middle class jobs. 

Career and Technical Education (CTE) is the modern evolution of what used to be called, sometimes derisively, vocational education. While more than 60,000 CTE students each year in NYC gain a practical education in a trade, they also learn advanced math and the skills that will power the Green Economy.

“I always thought that construction workers were dirty,” said Bronx Design and Construction Academy senior Issa Samake in an interview with the AmNews. Before attending the school, he believed that construction workers and those in the skilled trades “were doing a lot of dirty work, for not enough pay. I felt like people who go into construction are the people who don’t have any other choices in life—they have to go to construction to make ends meet,” he added.

A first-generation American whose parents hail from Mali, Samake, along with his classmates, takes traditional academic and even Advanced Placement classes while focusing on one of five areas: Plumbing, Electrical, Carpentry, Architecture, and HVAC. Soon after starting his first year, Samake’s opinions about the skilled trades began to change.

“I see it as hard work, and I also see it as a skill. And you need to be smart,” he said. “One of the first things I learned when I came to the school was that no matter what trade you do, what type of construction you do…you’re gonna have to be good at math.” He has focused on plumbing in high school and, thanks to the school’s state-of-the-art facilities, has learned how to build and repair bathrooms for home and commercial spaces, among other skills.

In 2020, CTE schools in New York City had an 86% graduation rate, according to the Department of Education, compared to 79% for the system overall.

“There is a huge focus on interdisciplinary instruction,” said Venkatesh Harini, executive director of Career Connected Learning in the NYC Public Schools. “We’re trying to, at all points in time, seamlessly integrate the academic requirements with the technical requirements, so that ultimately, when a student graduates from our school system, they have a core set of skills that make them both college- and career-ready soon after they graduate.”

She said that schools Chancellor David Banks “has emphasized the importance of reimagining learning so that we are connecting a young person’s passion and purpose to long-term economic security.” 

Apprentices practice welding at a union training facility. (Ornamental Ironworkers Local 580)

Not all roads lead to college

For decades, American educators have preached that the primary path to economic security is a four-year college degree, and many Americans still pursue that track. But the huge demand in skilled trades like plumbing means that not every student has to straddle themselves with the kind of college debt that even President Biden is trying to wipe out.

“College is supposed to prepare individuals for their chosen career. If a student wants to be an engineer or go into the medical field, a step to those industries [is] college, so they have to go that pathway. However, for many other careers, the pathway is not college,” said Anthony Johnson, one of Samake’s teachers, in an interview. “They can [go] from high school…directly into a career.” 

Johnson noted that some individuals are unemployed after finishing college, and their degree has nothing to do with the career they choose. “So what was the value of going to college for that person?”

For students like Samake, an internship is an important step in their path. As part of his education, he spent months working at Westchester Square Plumbing Supply. Bob Bieder’s family has run the company for 99 years and he believes that being an industry partner by offering internships has huge benefits for the students, the community, and his business.

“The kids that have come from this program have been amazing,” Bieder said in an interview. “This program affords them the opportunity to make a great living. Almost all have gone on to jobs in the industry and many of the kids come from lower-income areas.”

He also noted that “there is a huge need for qualified people. Right now, I have so many contractors who tell me on a regular basis that they can’t find anyone to work for them.” Bieder said with pride that many of his former interns now come through his doors as customers who are working in the industry.

Being qualified as a skilled tradesperson can make a huge difference to the career prospects of many students.

“We have students who realize that ‘I’m struggling where I live, and one way to improve my circumstances is to learn this trade so that I could become employed and hopefully take care of myself,’” said Johnson.

“The positive is, students are able to begin their careers at 18, which will lead to them supporting themselves. As much as possible, we try to steer our students toward the high-income earning opportunities if they qualify. Unfortunately, we do not get enough students to qualify,” he added. 

Johnson said that his greatest feeling of success as a teacher comes when his former students, many of whom are under 30, return to invite him to the housewarming party for their recently purchased homes.

‘We don’t create jobs, we create careers’

What about those who don’t receive the opportunity to learn a trade while still in high school? 

For much of the 20th century, the way into a skilled trade union was essential through birth: A family or friend connection was the only way into an apprenticeship program, which led many local unions, including some of those in New York, to being lily white.

“We don’t create jobs, we create careers,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the New York State and the New York City Building and Construction Trades Councils, in an interview with the AmNews

His organization provides programs that, in addition to working with New York high school students, help several groups, including veterans and those who have been affected by the criminal justice system and others, prepare to become skilled trade apprentices and join those unions. 

While many unions have had long histories of exclusion, LaBarbera highlighted the forward-thinking choices that his members have taken to create change. The programs they offer train between 600 and 800 people a year, which make up around 40% of new apprentices in New York.

“Why it so vital to reach into marginalized or underserved communities is because we believe the goal of organized labor is to lift people out of poverty into the middle class, and to build a stronger middle class and to create an opportunity for people to have family-sustaining careers where they can also have good medical coverage for themselves and their families, and ultimately have retirement security,” LaBarbera said. “This is only offered through the unionized construction industry and through our apprentice programs.”

Jamahl Humbert, Jr. is an example of how such programs make a difference. He wakes up at 4 in the morning to travel more than 90 minutes from his home in Staten Island to the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Ironworkers Local 580 Training Facility in Long Island City to participate in the Construction Skills program. The nondescript structure could easily be mistaken for an office building, but once inside, it becomes clear that this is a place where folks work with their hands.

Students at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy show off their skills during an open house. (Karen Juanita Carrillo/AmNews)

Humbert joined the program because it offered what he described as a “lifetime skill.” The program offers the ability to get on a pre-apprentice track that is otherwise much more challenging to get into.

“I think that for a lot of people, construction skills is definitely the way to go,” Humbert  said.

Nearly 90% of the participants in the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills are members of a minority community, said Nicole Bertrán, the organization’s executive vice president, in an interview. In addition, “80% of the graduates we place into unionized, apprenticeship opportunities stay and complete their apprenticeship and become journeypersons. That’s really important because a lot of the criticism or critique of programs like construction skills is that ‘you can get them into the apprenticeship, but then they never finish,’ which isn’t true,” she said.

Programs like these not only pay trainees and apprentices to learn; those students leave the programs debt-free, unlike the tens of millions of Americans struggling with college student loan debt.

No magic bullets

While these initiatives and ones like it in New York are making a real impact, there is still much work to be done on the national level. According to a recently released report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examined all registered apprenticeship programs (including those outside the construction and skilled trades), Black apprentices are underrepresented across the country, making up just 9% of apprentices, even though Black Americans make up more than 12% of the national workforce. However, this is still an improvement from 1960, when Black workers made up only 3.3% of apprentices in registered programs.

The report also noted that Black apprentices are least likely to complete their programs and have the lowest earnings. Justin Nalley, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center, attributes this in part to the high concentration of Black apprentices in the South.

“In the South, you don’t have the same labor standards for workers and employers,” he said in an interview with the AmNews. “The apprentices in the South are only earning 64 cents on the dollar compared to other areas in the country.” 

Real estate developer William Wallace IV of the Continuum Company, along with many of those interviewed for this article, attributed the lack of full representation in the skilled construction and construction trades to the lack of use of unionized labor. A third-generation Harlemite, Wallace is perhaps unusual among his peers, many of whom seem to only have their eyes on the ledger books, for his fierce advocacy of the use of unionized labor in the construction industry. But he also acknowledges that labor has not always been a friend to the Black worker.

“Building and construction trades had a terrible reputation, justifiably so, for not incorporating, welcoming, and including many members of color,” he said in an interview. But he noted that in New York, since “Gary LaBarbara has been president of the Building Construction Trades Council, there was an enormous turnaround—almost a mission to be as reflective as the community in which business is being done.”

While the building and construction trades have become far more inclusive, Wallace emphasized that “the amount of work that unions have been receiving, particularly for residential work in New York, has been enormously diminished. It used to be a 100% union town and that has changed.” 

Being a developer of color in an industry with so few peers is also a motivating reason behind why Wallace is so pro-union.

“My commitment is to be sure that people of color that are qualified have an opportunity to build,” he said. “I think you don’t find that personal kind of political commitment because there’s not [many] people of color in the development community.”

LaBarbera said that while his unions do work closely with many forward-thinking developers, “there are developers out there only committed to one thing, and that’s profit. And I don’t believe they’re really, truly committed to diversity; I don’t believe they’re really, truly committed to creating opportunities. They’re just looking at their bottom line.”

“If you think about it, building and construction is everywhere—we are born in a hospital that was built and constructed, we go back to a home or an apartment that was built and constructed,” Wallace said. “To not be [able] to be part of that is criminal.” 
This series was made possible by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Brian Palmer and Report for America corps member Tandy Lau contributed research and reporting to this article.

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