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Construction training program offers a new chance to Richmond residents who have struggled with drugs, jail and homelessness

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On a recent afternoon, participants in the construction skills course learned how to read and understand schematics.
Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

After 34-year-old Richmond resident Michael Cheatham completed an addiction treatment program for heroin and cocaine, he landed a job working at a local produce warehouse. He appreciated the job, but couldn’t help feeling like he wanted something more fulfilling.

“I wanted something better, something like a career,” he said. “Then I heard about this opportunity coming up through VCU about how to work in construction and I thought, ‘That’s the career change for me.’”

Cheatham is one of 14 men who took part in a pilot program called Quick Start Construction Training that is teaching the basics of construction work to Richmond residents who have struggled with addiction, homelessness and incarceration in order to give them a new opportunity and career, while also funneling trained workers to the state and local construction industry.

In a bigger sense, it’s about breaking the chain of poverty and giving hope to people.

“We’re teaching them basic construction 101,” said Richard F. Sliwoski, associate vice president of Facilities Management at Virginia Commonwealth University, who came up with the idea for the program and organized a grassroots coalition that includes VCU, the VCU Health System, construction industry associations, the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and the nonprofit organization CARITAS. “The goal is jobs. But, in a bigger sense, it’s about breaking the chain of poverty and giving hope to people.”

The first cohort of participants found their way to the program after previously taking part in either the sheriff’s office’s re-entry program called Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyle (REAL), or CARITAS’ CARITAS Works job and life skills programs. 

Sarah Huggins Scarbrough, Ph.D., internal program director for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office, said the sheriff’s office is proud to be partnering with VCU to support formerly incarcerated Richmond residents acquire skills that will lead not just to a job, but a career.

“It’s no secret that finding employment for felons is difficult — and often a major contributor to relapse and recidivism,” Scarbrough said. “Even more difficult is finding a job as a felon with a living wage. The opportunity that has been presented to us and CARITAS Works is incredible — now our clients not only have an opportunity for a job, but a career path. They are equipped with top-notch training, followed by employment in the industry. This is employment in respectable companies, making living wages, in a career that they could retire in.”

Over the last several weeks in a VCU Facilities Management training room, the 14 participants learned about hand tools, power tools, safety, construction drawings, material handling, communication skills, and much more.

“These participants will complete this course with a general understanding of tools, a general understanding of what they’re supposed to do — what equipment they’re supposed to wear, how they’re supposed to act, what they can and can’t do,” said Ron Clarke, the program instructor. “And I really try to drill into them, the most important thing is to be there on time and ready to go to work, consistently.”

As part of the training, participants are each earning an OSHA 10 card, a safety certification that is required for many construction jobs.

“Getting their OSHA 10 cards is a big thing,” Clarke said. “That means an employer doesn’t have to send them to a class for 20 hours to get this certification. That automatically saves the employer money, and it gives them a leg up.”

In addition to the OSHA 10 certification, each of the participants received a stipend during the training, and was issued work boots and other safety equipment that will ensure they are ready to go to work.

Tray Thompson, a former truck driver who entered the program after completing a drug addiction recovery program and CARITAS Works, said the program has opened his eyes to the possibility of a career as an electrician.

“A lot of what I’m interested in is electrical. I have no knowledge of electrical work at all, but I’m learning a lot,” he said. “This happened to come up at the right time. I had an opportunity to go back and keep driving a truck [after completing the addiction recovery program] but this is what I want to do [with my future].”

The best part, Thompson said, is the program culminates in a job fair with local construction companies looking to hire people.

“The industry is coming in here to pick us off and put us to work,” he said. “I mean, you can’t beat that.”

On Monday, six contracting companies visited the program and interviewed the participants, and organizers are optimistic that all 14 will be offered jobs.

Richmond resident Edward Sheppard is among the 14 participants in the construction skills course.
Richmond resident Edward Sheppard is among the 14 participants in the construction skills course.

Patrick Dean, president of the Virginia chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, said the program is providing participants with what they need to be employable, and comes as contracting companies are in major need of workers.

“The need for skilled craftsmen is off the charts. But the only way you get [workers] to that point is you gotta start them somewhere,” he said. “We’re probably short 10,000 craft workers in the state of Virginia right now. While these [workers] aren’t considered craft workers yet, they basically enter the job as a laborer and what they will do is, once they get through the summer, then their companies would put them into our apprenticeship programs.”

The program, he said, is getting participants comfortable with working on job sites.

“As long as they can handle that, then we’ll get them into an apprenticeship program where they can specialize in carpentry, electrical, plumbing, and so on,” Dean said.

Associated General Contractors of Virginia also contributed to the program. "Contractors need qualified workers to complete jobs on time and keep projects under budget at VCU, said Gordon Dixon, CEO of the organization. "This pilot program is a great opportunity to introduce construction careers to Richmond residents ready and willing to learn a valuable skill that lasts a lifetime."

Larry Little, vice president of support services and planning for VCU Health System, said the program is helping fill a need for construction workers while also helping Richmond residents.

“This training program has provided access for future employees who will help build our great city,” he said. “Training is often unavailable or difficult to obtain. It is our desire to develop and provide opportunities to the citizens of Richmond.”

Marilyn Milio, program manager with CARITAS Works, also praised the program, calling it “an opportunity for our participants who are already job ready because of the CARITAS Works program and the sheriff’s office REAL program to gain skills in the construction industry and be guaranteed employment once they successfully complete this program.”

Richmond resident Joseph Carter, who got involved with the program through CARITAS, said he is excited about taking what he’s learning in the class and one day possibly becoming a master plumber or another skilled worker.

“I just had off-and-on jobs here and there,” he said. “I’d always just been running the streets. Mother was addict, father was an alcoholic. I was left to fend for myself. So, you know, I made some bad choices. But this [program] was a good choice that was presented to me, and I’m really glad I made it.”

Cheatham, for his part, also never imagined he’d work in the construction industry. Now, however, he says he’s been enjoying learning about the various careers that will soon be available to him.

“I’ve been thinking about becoming a plumber — because I could go back to school and get my [journeyman] and a master’s, and just keep on growing,” he said. “I’ve got a thing about growing. I just want to get better and better.”

 

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