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New door to apprenticeships

A job is a job. But helping people acquire skills can put them on the road to a career.

The Building Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Program, a free training program concentrating on job-readiness and skills training, is designed to do just that, organizers said.

A pilot project, the program provides women and minorities such as 41-year-old Monique Degree opportunities to work in the construction industry. "I was looking for another part-time job and, at the same time, to learn a new trade," she said. "I wanted to get into something of a career."

The pre-apprenticeship program offers participation in panel discussions with industry experts, classroom instruction and one-on-one mentoring sessions with professionals in various trades. It is divided into two sessions: A six-week course that recently ended was aimed at the underemployed; the second session will start in July and cater to young people just out of high school.

The second session is much longer, organizers said, to give participants what they need to rank high on tests for apprenticeship programs.

A fund established by the Buffalo Building Trades Council pays for the program. The council's goal is to find qualified applicants for apprenticeship programs, said Michael W. McNally, business manager of Local 22, Plumbers & Steamfitters. He is a member of the council, which is made up of one representative from each of the local building trades unions.

"The best solution for unions is to have qualified minority apprentices so it almost ensures they are going to have a career," he said.

"All of the building trades unions have increased their apprenticeship participation, with anticipation we can put these individuals on school [construction] projects. It's giving a minority applicant an opportunity to learn a trade and work. It's a recipe for huge success."

Degree is primarily interested in plastering, drywall and ceiling tile, but she also wants to learn how to paint and work with ceramic floor tile.

The program was created by Tyra Johnson, an engineer formerly with LPCiminelli, which is managing the massive city schools renovation project. Johnson now owns Blue Sky Design Supply, which consults on green construction projects. She designed the training to help participants market themselves.

"The way you network, the way you dress when you go for an interview, it may be something small, but those small things add up to the bigger picture," Johnson said.

In addition to the mentoring opportunities and the panel discussions, the program also will provide participants access to a human resources professional, who will work with the class on issues such as time management, teamwork, conflict resolution and their role in the union, Johnson said.

Another component of the program is to help participants sharpen their math skills.

What the council is looking for are "good, qualified" candidates just to get through the apprenticeship process, a tough, five-year program. From there, participants have a chance to become journeymen and foremen on construction sites, McNally said. "There are always people looking for jobs. We don't want all those people. We want the ones who can make it through," he said.

There have been several previous attempts at pre-apprenticeship programs, such as a former job training center on Clyde Avenue on the East Side, said Brenda W. McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League.

Started by the building and construction trades unions, that program was viewed as a key element in the unions' pledge to train a new generation of minority construction workers. From 2002 to 2004, the center produced about 150 before the project was shut down.

"The first and second class of graduates did well," McDuffie said, "and then after that, the opportunities just died."

Meanwhile, Degree is hopeful about the program.

"They're really letting us know what we need to do. Even with all the panelists they had coming in, they answered all our questions," she said. "I liked that."