In the midst of Portland’s record-setting, $2.5 billion building frenzy, upwards of 10,000 skilled construction jobs are going unfilled. Chronic labor shortages could be “the new normal,” according to a recent article in the Oregonian.
Constructing Hope is using this demand to fulfill their mission of helping low-income residents in their NE Portland community, especially those with a legal history, start careers in construction. Executive director Patricia Davis, who spent years working in HR, saw firsthand how ex-offenders were discriminated against in the hiring process. “If you had a felony, your application always went in the ‘no’ pile,” she says. Now, she’s working with people trying hard to get back in the system.
Founded in 1995 as part of the Irvington Covenant Church Community Development Corporation, Constructing Hope separated from the church in 2009 to focus exclusively on its state-certified pre-apprenticeship training. The 10-week, hands-on program “gave us the teeth to help these guys walk through the door,” says Davis.
The organization treats its program as a “holistic approach” for reintegrating someone coming from incarceration and reentering society. Modeled on a construction work schedule, the trainees show up and punch a timecard at 6:30 am for the 10 weeks of classes, and submit to random drug testing, like they will face in the workforce. “Because we targeted minorities, we knew they would have to be on top of their game,” says Davis, “to get and keep these jobs.” Participants graduate with flagging, forklift, and OSHA 10 certifications, which are crucial for landing industry jobs.
Recruitment comes from partnerships with over 30 community organizations, including state employment offices, parole and probation officers, and the Central City Concern. Constructing Hope even travels to prisons and jails to give presentations on their resources.
And Constructing Hope is still expanding. Their newest program–still in its first year–targets local high-school aged youth in low-income families. Through a partnership with Airway Science, youth learn airplane-building skills, including riveting and sheet metal working. In the 3-5 week summer program, which also includes a 2 week STEM component, the boys and girls receive a grant-funded stipend.
Though Davis has struggled to find the funding for a stipend for the adult pre-apprenticeship program, she is confident that the training rebuilds lives and starts careers. The average starting wage of $17 per hour can go up to $26 per hour in a few years. Davis encourages her graduates to think ahead: “You can become a journeyman, even an owner. Contractors who have worked in the trades make the best construction business owners.”
Davis has seen that many of the men and women who come to Constructing Hope from incarceration are skeptical. They’ve been led on and let down time and again by a final background check. But they’re eager to work, build confidence, and start a career. “They’re the ones who stick in the jobs,” she says enthusiastically. “And that’s what gives me gratification.”
By Alex Freedman