PHILADELPHIA — “Congratulations young people, you’re about to become union members!” said School Reform Commission chair James Nevels. The school administrator heralded a groundbreaking agreement between the school district here and unions that make up the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.

The agreement offers some 425 apprenticeships to public high school graduates over the next four years.

School, union and public officials greeted the agreement, which was a long time in the making.

Pat Gillespie, head of the Building Trades Council, told the World that a leader of the city’s teachers union had broached the idea over a decade ago. In the past, he said, the construction unions felt that they were “in competition with academia” for successful students. He said labor’s perception was that the school district didn’t view the skilled trades as a viable career option.

The new agreement, Gillespie said, shows a recognition by school district leaders of the need to change that “mindset.” Gillespie pointed out that the high schoolers becoming apprentices under the agreement could account for 50 percent to 100 percent of all the apprentice jobs created in the city over the next four years. This will significantly increase the racial diversity of the urban construction workforce, he said.

“The racial composition of the workforce should reflect the community,” Gillespie said. Philadelphia is over half Black, Latino and Asian and 85 percent of the 12,000 public school students are non-white. Accusations of racism in the trades council have tinged its history. This agreement, observers say, makes a breakthrough on this issue.

Janet Ryder of the AFL-CIO, a former teacher and leader of the Philadelphia teachers union, said that she and others had been looking forward to this agreement for years. She told the World that the school district would have to do its part to insure the deal’s implementation, and that the “huge inequities” of race and gender long facing graduates of the city’s public schools would be overcome. For example, she said, “If you’ve been brainwashed to believe that girls can’t do as well as boys at certain trades, then why would you consider going into them?”

Larry Aniloff, the school district’s executive director of career and technology education, told the World that this agreement was something he had been thinking about for a long time. He said the school district was committed to insuring that it worked. The district will work with city departments and outside agencies, he said, to publicize this opportunity, recruit interested students and to insure that students who enter the program are successful.

Apprentices are in demand in the Philadelphia construction market. Between schools, housing and other construction projects, billions of dollars in spending are planned. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has plans to erect or rehab $1.2 billion in housing in the coming years. The school district has nearly $2 billion in new construction and renovation planned. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is looking at a $750 million project. The University of Pennsylvania is beginning a major building program.

A union construction worker can make $60,000-plus a year. Housing Authority Executive Director Carl Greene told the press that with union jobs, “We are able to help whole families solve the whole problem of crime and poverty. We help people to break the cycle of poverty. They get to participate in the economic growth of the city.”

After completing an apprenticeship and passing an exam, a student becomes a union member and can earn $20 to $40 an hour, Gillespie said. But success in the program requires hard work, he said. “It doesn’t promise people anything but the opportunity. There’s a lot of personal discipline involved. Cold winters, wet days, you have to go out there and produce.”

Eventually, Gillespie said, the trades council would like to work with the school district to open a high school, further solidifying the partnership.