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An incubator for skills in inner city Aspiring construction workers nurtured as center struggles to offer them a future

Three adults on a recent day were learning how to make a wall, lining up their two-by-fours vertically and spreading them 16 inches apart.

When they finish -- if they finish -- the students will tackle drywall.

"If it's not done right, I'll make them take it apart and build it again," said Ken Thomas, their observant teacher and sometime taskmaster.

It's part of the preapprenticeship program at the Outsource Center, 1649 Fillmore Ave., on Buffalo's East Side, where primarily minorities and women go to learn skills in the construction field. The program is a rarity in the inner city, especially since unions have relocated to the suburbs and taken their training programs with them.

Spencer Gaskin, a former painting contractor, and his nephew, Dorian, who operates a blacktop company, started the center 18 months ago to create a job-training program in a blighted area of America's third-poorest city. They wanted to offer a marketable skill for young people and others who might otherwise be drawn to a life of crime.

"Nothing stops a bullet like a job," Dorian Gaskin said.

>Seeking accreditation

For the three busy African-American trainees -- Randolph Pope Jr., 35; Jamar Braxton, 40; and Marnita Peterson, 45 -- the job-training program was a godsend.

"I was happy to come back home and see opportunity like this in our community, from our community," said Braxton, who returned to Buffalo from Charlotte, N.C., after losing his job as an insurance agent. "It was a joy to find a program like this."

Peterson, a former medical assistant, said she was there to find a better-paying career.

"This is an excellent program, and I encourage male and female to come on and get you a skill," Peterson said. "I mean, look, we're building a room; we're actually putting up a wall. I didn't know my measurements until I came here."

Glancing down at her tool belt, she marveled, "I have a home-improvement truck," referring to the tool caddy she was wearing.

Pope, who was laid off from a job making oxygen masks for airliners, summed up the program this way: "The first part is a classroom to do your measurements, deductive reasoning. The second part is getting dirty -- you sweat; you build."

While the training center, housed in a building used for decades by Jameson Roofing Co., strives to reach blacks and women, Spencer Gaskin stressed that it's open to all, with Poles and Latinos among those who have enrolled.

"All I want to do is put people to work. It doesn't have to be minority; any poor person looking for a second chance. The need in the community is tremendous," Gaskin said.

"With federal law that pertains to minorities, a lot of general contractors say, 'If you know of any minorities, send 'em to me, I'll hire them,' " Gaskin said. "They're trying to meet their goal, and a lot of times they can't, because they don't know who to hire."

The 10-week preapprenticeship program is divided between classroom time -- when the screened students, who must have a high school or general equivalency diploma, learn measurements -- and safety training. The latter is required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and allows the students to be certified for work with asbestos, lead and mold.

A total of 140 to 150 people have graduated, Spencer Gaskin said.

However, despite the community need, and signs of success, the Outsource Center is struggling to keep its doors open.

"It costs us about $14,300 to run a 10-week class," Dorian Gaskin said. "Every class that comes in here, we debate amongst ourselves if this is going to be the last class."

The Outsource Center suffered a major loss of income earlier this year when the Buffalo Employment & Training Center, which paid $2,225 for each of the 39 trainees who went through the program, stopped making referrals in March.

James Finamore, executive director of the Buffalo & Erie County Workforce Investment Board, which oversees the BETC, said that it was because the Outsource Center failed to reach its required 70 percent placement rate, and has yet to get accredited. "Our door is still open to put them back on the approved list," he said, if they meet the requirements.

"These are definitely sincere people. They're really trying to help disadvantaged people in this community get into productive jobs," Finamore said. "The position we're in is . . . we have certain minimal standards we have to adhere to."

>Hoping for support

Spencer Gaskin said the training center is in the process of becoming accredited in the next two weeks with the ABC Contracting Association. But he said reaching the placement goal has been a struggle, since some graduates have moved away, returned to jail for violating parole or taken nonconstruction-related jobs after graduating in January, months before the construction season kicks in. The percentage of placement has fluctuated from the high 30s to, more recently, 59 percent, depending on the time period.

Gaskin said he has asked for support from black politicians and churches, but has yet to see tangible results.

"A politician, when they run for office, they say they want to help the [black] community, he said. "I didn't run for office, but I am helping the community. I am putting people to work. All I'm asking them to do is support us."

Sometimes Gaskin said others question why he cares so much.

"I'm 69. I need this like a hole in the head. My wife thinks I'm crazy for doing it," he said. "But I'm a deacon at First Centennial Missionary Baptist Church, and I take my religion very seriously."

Ken Thomas, a co-owner with Spencer and Dorian Gaskin and public relations specialist Frank Williams, said there is a huge need for the program.

"The students who get out of high school, who cannot read, cannot do math, cannot read a ruler, is beyond belief," Thomas said. "I feel this is one of the most important things we have in this city."

>Tough 10-week course

Thomas said the rigorous 10-week program requires punching in before every time-related task. Reading comprehension, learning measurements, interviewing for a job and even money management are part of the program along with the hands-on construction.

"They have to commit themselves to something, and learn how to possess a career. It's not a gift; it's something they have to work for," Thomas said. "I make it so that whatever they learn, they really learn it."

He said the disproportionately low number of blacks in area trade unions makes it all the more important that they excel.

"If you make yourself a mediocre worker, you're going to get mediocre treatment and you're not going to be on call," Thomas said. "That's why I have to train them to be the most valuable person on the job site, so they're the last one to be laid off. That's the mind-set we're trying to create."

Added Spencer Gaskin: "We want to offer people a career, not just a job."

Dorian Gaskin said the center currently needs job opportunities for its graduates, materials such as used drywall for students to practice with and "any type of funding we can get to keep the lights on."

He and the other owners have been reaching into their own pockets to keep the doors open.

Pope, one of the trainees, said it would be a shame if the program had to shut down due to lack of funds.

"It's a good program that I feel can get some of the minorities who are having difficulties off the street, instead of committing crimes or going to jail," Pope said.

"That's why I'm here, I'm pretty sure my classmates, also. They want to be productive."

Joseph Cole recently returned to the Outsource Center as a student after having been shot three times by a gunman who fired into a parked car on Hirschbeck Street, killing his pregnant cousin and a friend.

"You know how President Obama will say, like, everybody got a job to do? So everybody has some accountability?" Cole said. "Well, with this program right here, it will prepare us to do our part."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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