‘I finally made my way into a union:’ First class graduates from trade training program

(Photo by Ayana Jones for the Philadelphia Tribune)

PHILADELPHIA —  Ullah Freeman was close to giving up on his goal of becoming a tradesman, after making several unsuccessful attempts to join various local construction unions.

He previously applied for the carpenters, elevator operators, iron workers and the sheet metal workers unions. Now Freeman is on his way to joining Local 30 Roofers Union.

He is one of the first recruits to join a program focusing on building a diverse pipeline of union tradespeople to work on Rebuild Philadelphia projects. Rebuild Philadelphia is an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in neighborhood parks, recreation centers and libraries.

“I finally made my way into a union because that was my goal for the past five years,” said Freeman, a 41-year-old resident of South Philadelphia.

“Now here I have the opportunity to get into one through an indirect segway through the Rebuild program.”

After working a non- unionized job with low wages, Freeman says he is thankful for the opportunity to build wealth for his family and move closer to his overall aspirations of becoming a real estate owner.

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Freeman and 14 other trainees were selected from a pool of more than 950 applicants by Rebuild and the cement masonry, roofing and painting trade unions to participate in the paid workforce development program. The pilot cohort received certificates of completion during a program held Friday afternoon at City Hall.

“Making sure our workforce program reflects the diversity of our city is essential for Rebuild,” said Nicole Westerman, executive director of Rebuild.

“Diversity and inclusion are a core pillar of this program — making sure that investments that we are making in parks, recreation centers and libraries provide economic opportunity for all Philadelphians.”

The pilot cohort — all people of color — comprises of eight painting trainees, six roofing trainees and one cement masonry trainees. Participants were paid throughout the training, starting at $13.25 an hour. They will gain apprenticeship hours working on Rebuild sites or partner projects across the city.

Monique Wright, a trainee who is pursuing a roofing career, appreciates the program’s thoroughness.

“A lot of what they presented was not something that you would have thought about the normal orientation or training,” said the 38-year-old native of West Oak Lane.

“They were giving you a professional set of skills. They were giving you social skills to be able to take out on the job. They were pretty much giving you all the tools that you needed to be successful.”

Since breaking ground on the first Rebuild project 10 months ago, $115 million has been committed to improving public spaces in city neighborhoods. The initiative is investing in capital improvements at 64 initial sites across Philadelphia, two-thirds of which are in high needs areas.

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As construction gets underway at more Rebuild sites, Rebuild will open recruitment for more trainees in a wider variety of skilled trades.

“Rebuild is a once-in- a-generation investment in our public spaces and it is important that this investment brings more diversity to the building trades and offers diverse and talented Philadelphia residents a family-sustaining wage,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.

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