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Iowa City partnering with UI Labor Center to bolster skilled trades workforce
City pandemic relief dollars will support the center’s pre-apprenticeship program
IOWA CITY — In a room filled with friends and family — and some watching by Zoom — 20 people in November celebrated graduating from the University of Iowa Labor Center’s pre-apprenticeship program.
Paul Iverson, a labor educator with the center, told the latest cohort during the graduation ceremony on Nov. 19 that they are a “prime example of why we started this program.”
“We have 20 people that are graduating today. We got high school students to people in their 50s. We've got a rich diversity of age, gender, race,” Iverson said. “ … It's rich diversity of what this country is about, and what the building trades should and will reflect.”
The Labor Center’s five-week pre-apprenticeship program creates a pathway for Iowans to qualify for and complete a skilled trades apprenticeship. The program, which is free for participants, actively recruits women, people of color, veterans and other groups underrepresented in the trades.
People learn about various trades, materials, interviewing skills, financial literacy, receive safety certifications, among other topics covered in the five-week course. The program connects participants to apprenticeship training coordinators in the area and provides support when they begin their apprenticeship program.
The city of Iowa City is investing $435,239 in pandemic relief dollars, which will allow the Labor Center to recruit year-round and consistently run the program for the next four years.
“We're really excited to be able to devote and focus a significant time in this program to the Iowa City community,” Labor Director Robin Clark-Bennett said.
‘Perfect example’ of using pandemic relief dollars
Iowa City received $18.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds and is funding both emergent and strategic needs identified in September 2021. The council has formally approved just under $5.3 million in projects.
The proposal from the Labor Center is in line with the city’s ARPA priority of bolstering the local workforce, according to a memo from the city’s grants manager Cassandra Gripp.
In September 2020, the Labor Center began to tracking whether the employment of applicants for the pre-apprenticeship program had been impacted by the pandemic. From September 2020 to March 2021, 19 out of 27 applicants reported their employment had been affected.
Council members enthusiastically and unanimously approved the funding, calling it a “win-win” for all parties involved and saying it will strengthen the local workforce and benefit Iowa City residents.
“When we talk about the ARPA funds, one of the things that the federal government wanted was to make sure that we built resilient communities,” Mayor Bruce Teague said.
“And this is a perfect example of using funds to make sure that people, that individuals, are more resilient because we don't know what the future can hold for us as a nation and as a community.”
Council members during public comment heard from individuals who have participated in the program and expressed the opportunity this program gives graduates.
Greg Hearns, president of the Iowa City Federation of Labor, said the pre-apprenticeship program provides the best and safest workers.
Funding will allow for consistency
In the funding proposal, Clark-Bennett said the pre-apprenticeship program is “uniquely positioned to make lasting progress” by connecting Iowa City area residents to jobs in the trades. The program launched in 2019.
“Construction employers and unions report an acute need to recruit more skilled trades workers, and the federal infrastructure bill is likely to increase future demand,” Clark-Bennett said.
The labor center will receive $35,239 for the current fiscal year 2023, as well as $100,000 for the next four fiscal years for a total of $435,239 in pandemic relief dollars.
The Labor Center will use $35,239 to help with case management and placement of the 20 graduates who finished the course in November. The remaining $400,000 will be used to publicize, recruit for and conduct the pre-apprenticeship course each fall from 2023 to 2026.
“Having funding to provide an annual, recurring program would allow for year-round recruitment and “dramatically increase the visibility and local impact of this program,” Clark-Bennett said. The program relies on grant funding, which can be short-term and unpredictable.
The Labor Center will work with two local organizations — New Creations International Church and Dream City — that will help with recruitment, program feedback and additional support for participants.
According to the proposal, each fall there will be about 30 individuals enrolled from the Iowa City area. At least 70 percent will be from underrepresented groups.
At least 80 percent of those enrolled will graduate and at least 50 percent of graduates will be enrolled in a registered apprenticeship program within one year of graduating.
The Labor Center also helps make the program accessible for participants. There are Chromebook computers available for use, a lending library of starter tools, limited funding to help with transportation and child care costs, as well as a peer support network for women in trades.
There are monthly online meetings open to all graduates of the pre-apprenticeship program so they can discuss successes, challenges and serve as mentors.
Graduates help mentor other participants
After graduating from Liberty High School in 2020, Justin Mwandjalulu applied for and completed the pre-apprenticeship program that same year.
The program taught Mwandjalulu about construction, safety and prepared him to be out in the field. He told The Gazette it also helped him build connections to then apply for a registered apprenticeship program.
Mwandjalulu, who lives in North Liberty but is originally from Congo, is now a second year carpentry apprentice. He is about halfway done with his program and serves as a mentor to those who are in the Labor Center’s pre-apprenticeship program.
Mwandjalulu hopes to help others with some of the challenges he experienced when first starting his apprenticeship. Mwandjalulu, who has lived in the country for seven years, said there are language and cultural barriers that have improved, but still exist.
“I really had to put myself out there,” he said.
One of his goals is to see more Black people in the trades.
“I never saw myself mentoring people, but now I'm in front of people and talking about construction and how it changed my life,” Mwandjalulu said.
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