Brooklyn Boro

As development booms, an effort to pair workers with construction jobs near home

December 23, 2019 Michael Stahl
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Despite Brooklyn’s seemingly unstoppable building boom, Shaquille Charles struggled for months to find full-time work in the construction industry.

A carpenter since he was a kid, the 26-year-old resident of East New York recently shifted focus to electrical work. All told, he’d amassed five years of professional experience in the field. He’d been able to find some freelance gigs, but the security, health insurance and paid time off of a full-time position proved elusive.

That changed soon after Charles attended a construction industry recruitment session in September, with job opportunities presented by Building Skills New York, a nonprofit that connects local workers — primarily those who are unemployed or underemployed — to open construction positions with a collective of partnered contractors.

“We’re working on over 60 active construction sites around the city. Twenty-five of those are in Brooklyn,” David Meade, Building Skills’ executive director, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there, a lot of jobs that we’re sourcing on.”

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The September recruitment session was organized by City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who each represent a swath of Central Brooklyn.

The politicians got word of the event out to their constituents via social media and other postings. Charles heard about it through a friend who showed him a flyer. (In other scenarios, Building Skills finds prospective employees by consulting with dozens of community-based groups and other nonprofits that provide job connectivity to those seeking work.)

Serving all of New York City, Building Skills offers construction workers various services, including job preparation counseling. Photo: Building Skills

At the event, held in Walker’s office, Charles was asked about his various certifications and what kind of work he sought out, part of a vetting process that is standard operating procedure for Building Skills. Charles told the Eagle he was “ecstatic” to learn that, within 48 hours of the meeting, a construction company, Safeco Electrical Industries, had hired him for full-time work.

“Sometimes this moves really fast,” Meade said of the hiring process. “Construction moves extremely quick; new jobs pop up and they get filled real quick because of [projects’] time constraints.”

Since then, Charles — one of five meeting attendees who earned full-time positions — said he’s forged good relationships with his foreman and coworkers. Building Skills staff members have checked in on him throughout the process.

“They would call you on off days to make sure you’re good, make sure the family’s good, everything,” Charles said. He described the organization as “a family network.”

Much like the city’s emerging high rises, the Building Skills family is growing rapidly. According to Meade, the organization placed about 41 construction workers in jobs in 2016. That number shot up to 125 in 2017, and the next year saw another notable increase with 235 jobs filled. As of last month, Building Skills connected more than 285 people to construction positions in 2019, with Brooklyn being home to more of them than any other borough.

With worries of economic displacement continuing to disrupt long-standing communities — as witnessed in Williamsburg, Park Slope, Greenpoint and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and citywide — Walker believes programming like that supplied by Building Skills could help stem the tide.

“We’re seeing communities thriving and we just want to make sure that our community isn’t left behind,” the assemblymember told the Eagle. She added that “individuals who stuck it out in the worst of times” should “be able to enjoy the prosperity and the best of times” in Brooklyn as well. “The only way to do that is to make sure people have the finances by which to stay in the neighborhood they were born and raised in, and raise their own children here. That’s what everyone wants.”

Walker appreciates the work Building Skills is doing, but said she also hopes that at some point the organization and other job placement programs like it will provide workers with some required protective gear, such as hard hats, goggles and work boots, to cancel the financial burden actually brought on by obtaining a job.

In addition to job placement, Building Skills also conducts training for workers not yet in full-time positions, helping them obtain various certifications with an eye toward future employment opportunities. (Charles told the Eagle he’s looking forward to one day learning how to work on solar panels through the organization.)

Construction jobs end once their respective projects are complete, and Building Skills members with expired contracts are rolled back into a queue, getting new jobs usually within a week, Meade said. Prior to sending the workers out in the field to a new job, Building Skills staffers will go over site details with them, such as how to travel there and which foreman to ask for upon arrival. The goal of those efforts, Meade said, is to “ease that anxiety” one might feel showing up at a vast construction site for the first time.

After the worker has started their job, Building Skills representatives will visit sites to see how they’re performing, all part of the organization’s efforts to generate what Meade called “ongoing retention.”

“It’s a really important part of our work,” he said. “We stay with that individual after the first day, after the first week … After they’ve had success and feel like they’re settling into the position, we’ll stay in touch with them on a monthly basis.”

For those looking for employment in the construction industry, Meade said Building Skills is always open to receiving new, eager hands for its program — though prospective workers should be prepared for recruitment sessions to be held on “construction hours,” sometimes beginning at 6:45 a.m., the time many workers are expected on job sites. The September recruitment session with Walker and Ampry-Samuel was held during after-work hours, in the early evening, but, regardless, Meade was thrilled with the outcomes.

“I commend the electeds for putting the event together,” Meade said. “We’d love to do more of them, especially in Brooklyn with all the [construction] that’s going on.”

Walker said she’d welcome the chance to collaborate with Building Skills again, to benefit those in her community who want “to make construction work their first choice,” but lack some of the resources to make a job in the industry a reality. “We just want to make sure that we are leveling the playing field so that they can gain access to the same American dream that we all read about.”

Michael Stahl is a New York-based reporter covering business and technology across the borough. You can find him on Twitter.

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