Students don hard hats in unique school-trades partnership

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PHILADELPHIA — “We need the best people here. If you have a trade, a skill, no one can take that from you.”

This was the advice Frank Marsh of Iron Workers Local 401 gave to the 40 Philadelphia high school students who attended Youth Safety in Construction Day here May 22.

The unique event was organized by OSHA (the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration) and other Labor Department officials, city agencies, the LF Driscoll Construction Co., building trades unions, and the Philadelphia School District.

The students, male and female, from four vocational skills programs in different parts of the city, spent three hours on a “hard hat tour” of an 11-story construction site, soon to become the Fisher Translational Research Center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It was a memorable experience for these young people.

Divided into four groups, they saw the job from top to bottom. I joined a group that started at the top. On the 11th floor, we learned that falls are the most common cause of injury and death at construction sites, and got a “fall protection demonstration” from members of building trades District Council 21.

When we had worked our way down, part of it by the stairs and part in the lift elevator, to the loading dock, we learned the proper use of a safety harness and witnessed a “Rigging and Hoisting Safety Demonstration.”

The students were obviously well prepared to get the most out their experience.

Anthony Resikoff, from Swenson Skill Center, said he hoped to become an electrician because he had “always been interested in how things operated” around his house, from the ceiling fan to household appliances.

Carl Howard said he had “always liked to build things” and plans to go into engineering.

Three years ago, the Philadelphia School District and the building trades unions and contractors reached an agreement that students who graduate from a vocational program in the city’s public school system will be able to enter one of the city’s construction apprenticeship programs. Youth in Construction Day was part of an effort by the School District and the construction unions to make this program work and help public school graduates, including African American and Latino students, male and female, move into construction jobs.

This will require diligence on everyone’s part. It is widely recognized that the students aspiring to enter the building trades are, in a sense, pioneers.

Charles Lewis, who oversees the program for the School District, told the World that union apprenticeship programs do not generally start at regular predetermined times like college or university programs, and slots open and close quickly.

Jim Toohey of OSHA addressed the students before they headed out on the tour. “We are thrilled to have you here today,” he told them. He also said that he had spent four years in his apprentice program in order to become a union carpenter.

According to figures cited in the local press (as of January 2008), the building trades present a mixed and varied picture in terms of racial diversity. Of the approximately 2,000 carpenters working on Philadelphia construction projects, around 400, or 20 percent, are members of a “minority” group. Of the 450 plumbers, only 56, or 12 percent, are “minority.”