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Building a Future 

New Skill Builders program introduces minorities, women to careers in the construction trades

In 2007, Kelvin Houston was making $13 an hour as a patient transporter at the University of Chicago Medical Center when a church friend told him about New Skill Builders, an initiative designed to encourage minorities and women to enter construction trades in Chicago. Earlier this year, Houston became the first graduate of the program to earn union journeyman status.

It wasn’t easy, but Houston has completed a journey from working at a job to having a promising career with limitless possibilities. Linda Hannah, director of New Skill Builders, is optimistic that Houston will be the first of many.

Begun about 10 years ago by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Skill Builders was revamped and reintroduced as New Skill Builders in 2005, Hannah said. Two years later, the program received a state grant to expand and open a 12,000-square-foot workshop that it now shares with the nonprofit organization Chicago Women in Trades.

The program helps Chicago residents find employment and succeed in the construction energy through a 13-week skills assessment and skill-building curriculum.

“If you can imagine someone who has an interest in going into the construction trade, but not knowing the process, not having experience, we’re able to get them in, introduce them to the trade, and that’s what we do,” Hannah said. “We don’t teach, we introduce them, and as a result of that they’re able to have a much better understanding of, for example, the difference between pipefitters and plumbers.”

Houston’s journey began when he was fast-tracked through the 13-week curriculum and into a hybrid-welding program. His first step was to take a welding class at the Local 597 training center in Mokena, Ill. Houston worked the night shift at the hospital from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and then went straight to class from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. After finishing the 16-week class in 11 weeks with perfect attendance, he became a second-year apprentice. He completed the apprenticeship in June and became a journeyman. Houston also received the Local 597 training center’s Jerry F. Miller “Dedicaton to the Craft” award at graduation.

“He’s a superstar all across the board,” Hannah said.

Will Best Jr., one of Houston’s instructors at the Pipefitters Training Center in Mokena, called Houston a “really hard worker” who was “dedicated to the pipefitters program.” Best said Houston has a bright future ahead of him, and applauded the program for giving students an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have — or even know about.

“They get to see what’s out there and then they get to see what interests them the most, and then they get training on that,” Best said. “They get training on how to do interviews, something that they probably had never done before, so all around, I think it’s a great program.”

Houston may be the first New Skill Builders graduate to earn journeyman status, but he certainly isn’t the first to complete the program. Hannah said about 300 residents have taken the curriculum, with 55 going on to apprenticeships (and others are on an apprenticeship waiting list). Funding is now being sought to help continue the initiative, she said.

Hannah said while a number of people have gone through the curriculum and decided a career in the construction trades may not be a good fit for them, the important thing was exposing minorities and women to those career possibilities.

“That’s one of the advantages of people coming through an apprenticeship preparation program,” she said, “that it’s better for them to know at that level that this is not a good fit rather than going in, becoming an apprentice and taking a seat that someone else who wants to finish would take.”

Hannah added that historically minorities have had a lack of understanding of the process and an attitude of “There’s no need to apply if they’re not going to let us in.” Programs such as New Skill Builders help people on both sides understand that some of the best and brightest members of society are being left behind, she said.

“If we want to rebuild this country, we want to be inclusive and make sure that the reason people are not in is because they don’t want to,” Hannah said, “not because they don’t know how or they’re not being prepared properly.”

Houston is overjoyed by the bright future that awaits him.

“I’m 26 years old and, honestly, I have a career,” he said. “Now I can go anywhere in the United States. And that’s the most exciting thing about it. I can do anything in the States and this will follow me. I’m a UA-certified pipefitter. I can work in refineries; I am union, a hard-working young man. So I’m happy about that. Very happy.”