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Training for construction jobs in San Francisco in the midst of a labor shortage

Amber Miles
CityBuild Academy students in training in Heron’s Head park.";

SF’s housing crisis is complicated. Yes, there’s a shortage of housing, but also a shortage of skilled workers. CityBuild has a mission; train local San Franciscans to fill those lucrative and much needed positions.It’s a brisk Friday morning in Heron’s Head Park. Sea birds sing and swoop over cargo ships idling in the mist-covered bay. It would be a pretty peaceful scene if there weren’t about fifty aspiring construction workers holding big rocks above their heads, panting and grunting their way through a series of squats and lunges. They are part of a a program called CityBuild Academy.

Jamil Gant is a CityBuild student who hopes to be a carpenter. He tells me he’s used to working out at a gym with weights, “But the rocks are just as heavy,” he says, and they’re oddly shaped, “Just like a lot of stuff on the jobsite.” To Jamil, this P.E. class makes a lot of sense, he can see that they have the construction worker in mind.

Built with the construction worker in mind

The whole CityBuild Academy curriculum was built with the construction worker in mind. In this 18 week program administered by San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development industry veterans teach subjects ranging from labor studies, to construction math, to blueprint reading. There are also practical classes, where students try their hand at various trades.

Right now the students are demolishing an entire house out in the backlot behind City College’s Evans Campus. It was built by the last CityBuild class and now this cohort is charged with taking it down piece by piece before breaking ground on their own structure.

Credit Rafael Palacios
CityBuild Students working in the backlot of CCSF’s Evans Campus.

The academy is physically demanding, but it’s been a smooth enough transition for Jamil after serving eight years in the Army Reserves. In fact, he says it reminds him a lot of the military, “I think that they make it hard on purpose. It's not for no reason, it's genuinely to help us.”

Jamil wants to learn as much as he can, and he’s already looking forward to sharing his newfound skills with his son, who just turned two in April.  He says that’s why he’s getting into carpentry, “To learn all these skills and teach him the skills.” He didn’t get that from his dad.  

A mission to connect local jobseekers with living wages

Union construction work is well paid and offers great benefits. CityBuild  provides an opportunity for unemployed and underemployed locals to learn the skills, and get the certifications, to break into the field.

Joshua Arce, a former Civil Rights Attorney and one of Mayor Ed Lee’s final appointees, directs the CityBuild program. “It really had its genesis in community protests that started when the Third Street light rail, also known as the T line, was making its way down into Hunter's Point,” he says. Despite the city’s investment in various workforce training programs, the neighborhood had seen persistent unemployment since the closure of the Hunter’s Point shipyard back in the 1970’s.

Graduates from these training programs were not able to get jobs on the T line, so, Arce says that community members and activists, led by the an organization called Aboriginal Blackmen United, organized and shut down the T line.  He says, essentially, they “Stopped the project until the City and the contractors agreed that they would bring those who were outside with a picket line onto the job to work with tools and help build that line into the community.”

Ultimately people were able to go directly from protesting the T line to working on it, and the City did two things. First, it created CityBuild, one comprehensive training program, available to all city residents looking to get into the trades.

The second was a policy shift. In 2010 the City implemented the San Francisco Local Hiring Policy for Construction, a mandatory local hiring law. Now, if you have a contract with the city for public work or improvement projects in excess of $600,000, at least 30% of all project hours within each trade must be worked by local residents.

A method for training well-rounded apprentices

A group of students in safety goggles and matching grey Dickies work shirts gather around a heavy, wooden shop table. They all watch intently, as a cabinet maker with decades of experience under his belt shows them how to make a proper cut. Only some of these students will become carpenters, but it’s advantageous for everyone to know their way around a woodshop. Whether they want to be ironworkers, cement masons, or electricians, this broad education in a variety of trades can make CityBuild grads attractive hires.

Everyone in the class builds a wooden toolbox, something they can bring to the job. It’ll show their new co-workers they know a thing or two, and of course it’ll remind them of their time at CityBuild. That connection to the program is something that’s meant to continue after graduation, with alumni mixers and career liaisons. The CityBuild alumni also bump into each other on various jobs throughout their careers.

Jamil’s already met a lot of former CityBuild people, and he says, “It seems like every single one of them said CityBuild has changed their life drastically, you know. And I know for a fact that CityBuild’s going to change my life too. It feels really, really good to be a part of something like that, this little CityBuild community, to be a part of this family.”

The challenge and benefit of connecting with jobseekers  

In order to benefit from a program like this, jobseekers actually have to hear about it, and reaching out to communities with high unemployment is still a challenge. Another CityBuild student, Derreyl Goode, says, “A lot of people out there they don't even know about this program. Like in my community, I'm from the Western edition area of San Francisco. I see a lot of people that I grew up with, I think if they knew about some of the different paths that they could take, life will be better.” Derreyl only found out about CityBuild himself when he tried to join the Carpenter’s Union.
Like Derreyl, Jamil is grateful that he found CityBuild when he did. Still, he says he can’t help but wonder why he only heard about it for the first time a couple months ago. “Society, our parents, the teachers, it's all about college, college, college, college, college, go to college, graduate, get a job, live the dream, you know, and as we all know, quite often it doesn't work like that anymore. I just wish  someone, anybody would have said another option would be to join the trades, you know what I'm saying?”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average bachelor's degree now costs about $100,000. And many people are still paying back student loans well into their 30’s. CityBuild graduates, on the other hand, can expect an average starting wage of nearly $24 an hour, and, because there’s so much construction happening in San Francisco, it’s not unusual for an average worker to be making six figures, after just a few years on the job.

A constrained labor market nationwide

The shift away from vocational training and subsequent shortage of skilled tradespeople isn’t just a local phenomenon. It’s nationwide, and certainly statewide, according to Carolina Reid, of UC Berkeley’s City and Regional Planning Department. She says, “This is a problem in Oakland, this is even a problem if you think about Santa Rosa and the amount of rebuilding that needs to be happening there after the fires. We’re just in a really constrained labor market when it comes to construction workers.”  

She says San Francisco has a specific problem, because it’s so expensive to live here, “So, the extra labor pool that doesn't have a job just isn’t very big, and so the ability to attract new labor into the construction industry is in part shaped by how many people are still there that might be lower income or without work.”

The current pool of construction labor is also less skilled than a decade ago. As a result of the 2008 recession, experienced construction workers were forced to find other careers, and many of them never returned.  This means that today, the pool of candidates is weighted towards less experienced tradespeople still in the first decade of their career. Less experienced tradespeople means jobs take longer, again driving up costs. Carolina Reid says “You don't become an expert construction worker in a day, and so what we have is a mismatch between when those people are trained and when they were needed. Building up the workforce is really important, and I think programs like city build can really help with that, but is it going to solve our current construction costs problem? Probably not.”

A drop in the bucket that can build a bright future

I catch up with Derreyl Goode and Jamil Gant in the hallway outside their classroom. They’re on inventory duty, sorting through a jumble of tools and cataloging everything in the supply closet.  Derreyl tells me he’s been spending nights at the hospital, because his fiance’s in labor. He says that baby is “Ready to come out, but her body’s not ready.” Derreyl’s tired, but still excited to fill me in on Jamil’s good news. Derreyl claps Jamil on the back and says, “That’s the master carpenter right there. He just got hired by Webcor and he starts Monday in the field.” They tell me that it looks like Derreyl might get a job on the same site as a laborer. He has an interview in two weeks.

Credit Amber Miles / KALW News
Derreyl Goode and Jamil Gant taking inventory.

The following Monday, I get a text from Derreyl, a baby announcement, introducing his son, King Major. In the photo, I see Derreyl with a big smile and a tiny baby in his arms.

When we catch up later Derreyl tells me, “Before if you would ask me what my future held, I would tell you it's blurry.” Now he has a clear vision. He says “I see myself owning a house, I see myself going on family vacations, I just see myself being a role model, not only to my family and my kids, but just everyone else in my neighborhood and my community because they see me getting up, they seen me when I come home dirty, they see me with my bags and my books, and they know that I'm going to be somebody.”

I visit a construction site in downtown San Francisco, to see Jamil on his first day on the job. A superintendent points down into the skyscraper-wide hole, where Jamil and another CityBuild grad are hard at work, some four stories below.


Credit Amber Miles / KALW News
After just 6 weeks at CityBuild, Jamil Gant is already working big construction projects.

He calls them and Jamil makes his way across the exposed iron rebar floor, up a series of ladders and walkways, looking like a real construction worker now in his Webcor hardhat and bright orange vest.

I ask Jamil how it’s going. “So far so good!,” he says. “I’m going to be on the layout team. I’m looking forward to it. I’m feeling good.”

I let Jamil get back to work. Hopefully, in a couple weeks time, he’ll be joined by Derreyl and one by one all the CityBuild grads will trickle into the trades. It may never be enough to fill San Francisco’s depleted labor pool, but certainly for these guys, it’s a start.


Credit Amber Miles / KALW News
CityBuild Graduate Jamil Gant.