Living the Line

Earning a Living Wage Through Construction Skills

For single mothers like Catana Yehuda, 43, earning a minimum wage would barely suffice.

NEW YORK — For single mothers like Catana Yehuda, 43, learning construction skills was her only solution to earning a living wage in this tough economy.

For those struggling with unemployment for more than a year, like Yehuda, the Human Resource Administration (HRA) has long stressed interviewing and resume writing workshops. While these state administered programs are effective for those lacking work experience, people who have worked have found learning vocational skills a saving grace for climbing out of poverty.

“I almost got [kicked] out of my apartment of 14 years,” said Yehuda. “I thought to myself ‘How the hell am I going to pull this off?’”

Despite ten years experience in office administration and medical assistance, Yehuda has been jobless since 2008. She faced multiple threats of eviction from her apartment and survived on food stamps and cash assistance, while supporting her 18-year old daughter through high school. In addition, her criminal record for tax fraud left a scar on her resume, hindering job searches in her experienced fields.

This all changed when Yehuda found Strive, a non-profit vocational training organization for low income individuals. Strive taught her scaffolding  and  building insulation removals skills and she was able to make her way into the construction workforce.

“In order to build a career, everybody has to be good and skilled in something,” said Katherine Strickle, the Assistant Director of Career Services at Strive. “It has to be a deliberate evolution from a job into a market and dedication to a certain field.”

Strickle sees the knowledge for vocational skills as a competitive edge verses those with traditional college degrees. College grads typically won’t have the necessary hands-on skills of construction, electrical, or medical technical training needed to fill the middle skill job market which is still hiring despite the down economy.

“I don’t think most employers in this field care about educational attainment as much as can the person get the job done, can they show up on time, and are they teachable,” said Toby Gardner, an Employment Coordinator at Brooklyn Woods. “It’s correlation, not causation.”

Gardner attributed the devaluation of vocational training for a variety of “complicated reasons,” ranging from educational policies, recent emphasis on liberal arts education, and lack of vocational program exposure in high schools over the years.

In 2008, the City’s Department of Education decided to rethink vocational training by establishing Career and Technical Education high schools around the city, such as the Aviation High School in Long Island City and the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island. However high school career and technical training programs are now facing cuts of as much as 20 percent for next year to be able to increase overall education funding by 11 percent.

“Certainly we live in an age where knowledge workers are important. But, there is also a continuing need for individuals who can work with their hands, build things, and understand that process,” argued Gardner for more state funding for vocation training.

Federal-funded training programs, such as HRA’s Back To Work, have been under scrutiny for its effectiveness since it’s inception in 2005. Every year, $53 million is pumped into the program, targeting anyone with challenges to employment. Participants can range from those with vast work experience, to homeless individuals with no training or experience. They spend eight hours a day receiving soft-skills training in resume preparation, interviewing techniques, and job search activities.

“Some people need soft skills and some people need hard skills,” said Amanda Melillo, a Policy Analyst from the Institute of Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. “There are some people who never worked in their life and people with extensive resumes in this program. To put them side by side and give the same instruction isn’t really helping anybody.”

Not all programs run by the city follow the “one size fits all” ideology. According to Melillo, the city’s Center of Economic Opportunity might have better programs to target individual’s employment needs.

Established by Mayor Bloomberg in 2006, the CEO uses evidence-based initiatives to target specific population segments and reduce poverty within the city. For example in the Advance to Work Program, the CEO utilizes Workforce1 Career Centers around the city to provide low-wage workers in job upgrades, access to work support, and asset-building activities.

Although these programs allow New Yorkers to get a head start in their career search, Yehuda knew going through the training program was only half of what’s essential to finding a job. For a year after she graduated in 2010, she drove around the city, physically dropping resumes to different construction sites, hoping someone would hire her; sometimes not even realizing she’s been to the same employer twice. The pro-active approach ultimately paid off when she recently found a job.

“I really feel sorry for people like myself,” said Yehuda, “because it’s really hard to get employed.”


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