On the ground: Unemployed find a line worth waiting in

It was cold and it was early, but for a chance at what she called a new lease on life, Racquel Reaves wasn’t complaining as she shivered downtown on Monday.

Reaves, a 20-something woman who said she has never held a steady job, lined up with several dozen residents before City Hall’s 9 a.m. opening in hopes of registering for New Haven’s Construction Workforce Initiative, a recruitment effort meant to offer a veritable New Deal to the city’s jobless.

Young New Haven residents line up at 200 Orange St. to apply for construction jobs.
Philip Hu
Young New Haven residents line up at 200 Orange St. to apply for construction jobs.

Reaves said the prospect of wearing a hard hat or being handed a hammer or paint brush would be nothing short of a blessing; to her, it would offer not only an escape from unemployment, but a chance at a career. Indeed, hope was a tangible sentiment for many in the long line of applicants on Monday, when the program opened for business.

Kel Wynn, one of the few women in a crowd of mostly black and Hispanic men, said the workforce initiative offers not only training in various fields, but also job stability, something she said she believes the current economy and local job agencies cannot provide. Ronald Ko, who currently works in the carpet industry, traveled from Bridgeport in hopes of becoming a painter — the pay, he said, would be a lot better. A few yards back in the line, Matt Maebry dubbed the city’s program his best shot at a steady job.

“This is an opportunity I can count on,” said Maebry, who has a G.E.D. “It is hard to get a job without a college degree because employers aren’t hiring so much because of the recession.”

Launched in 2003 by the New Haven Commission on Equal Opportunities, the initiative aims to equip the unemployed or underemployed with the skills to begin a career in the city’s construction industry. After an initial review period, applicants are invited to a 12-week training practicum in skills such as painting, carpentry and electrical wiring.

The initiative’s executive director, Nichole Jefferson, said the program aims to enhance the employability of the its participants. Though the initiative offers a weeklong workshop on resume writing and interviewing, its ultimate goal is to funnel candidates into unions that will offer jobs on New Haven’s building sites. And with pay at $15 to $17 per hour, the program offers a much-needed leg up to many local workers who subsist on minimum wage.

“Some of the people here have never been employed, others have criminal records,” Jefferson said. “By the end of this program, they will be different people.”

Mark Wilson, one of New Haven’s utilization monitors for the Commission on Equal Opportunities, said three-quarters of applicants receive training through the program, and three-quarters of those will go on to use that training to build houses — and, in the long term, careers.

Though Yale has postponed major capital projects due to the recession, Wilson said New Haven’s construction industry remains strong. Along with the 30-story mixed-use tower at 360 State St., Gateway Community College’s new complex downtown and the renovation of five local schools are also among the construction projects in need of workers. Jefferson added that the Construction Workforce Initiative has helped increase the participation of local residents — especially minorities and women — in these construction efforts, in turn helping the local economy.

“The workers also bring money into New Haven,” Jefferson said. “This means $1.4 million in wages and over $2.3 million in benefits over the past year.”

Anyone from New Haven and the surrounding area can apply for the program during the recruitment week, which ends Sunday. While Wilson acknowledged that not all applicants will be selected for the program, he said the city will keep a wait list so candidates who miss the initial cutoff can be offered jobs later on.

Reaves noted that the handful of odd jobs she has worked in the past, such as in a medical office or as a painter, offered zero stability. She said that within a given week, she could expect to work anywhere from a couple hours to a few days. Discrimination, she said, is also a glaring problem within temporary industries. “It’s hard to find a job when you’re African-American,” she said.

But as she stood outside City Hall at 8:50 a.m. Monday, Reaves was just one of many waiting to receive from a 21st century breadline.

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