One year after the civil unrest that rocked the city of Baltimore to its foundations, there is one question that remains unanswered: What steps are being taken to address the root economic problems that were, and continue to be, the kindling that fuels the types of infernos that overtook the city last year?
Specifically, what steps are being taken by both city and state officials to facilitate the creation of jobs and economic opportunity for Baltimore’s historically disadvantaged communities?
Where, for example, are the discussions about leveraging the proposed $600 million Convention Center expansion (or the Sparrows Point development project, for that matter) with a formalized program of “local hire” provisions; apprenticeship-readiness programs; and formal skilled craft apprenticeship education— the kind of instruction that provides not just a “job,” but the training and skill sets that lead to a life-long career?
Across the United States, forward-thinking civic leaders are adopting such innovative approaches to leverage both public and private construction dollars for the expressed purpose of lifting the most needy and most underserved citizens out from under the strains of poverty and public assistance.
By partnering with businesses and industries, as well as working with local building trades unions and community organizations such as the National Urban League and YouthBuild, city leaders here in Baltimore could emulate a business model that has proven wildly successful in cities like Boston; New York; Cleveland; Detroit; Los Angeles; and Seattle, as well as more rural areas like Augusta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama.
Today across America, over 100 skilled craft “apprenticeship-readiness” programs are operating in joint fashion between trade unions, local government, private enterprise, and local community groups. Thanks to these programs, thousands of candidates from diverse backgrounds are gaining the type of knowledge that will not only prepare them for entry into a formal, skilled craft apprenticeship training program, but also give them the best chance for success.
An apprenticeship-readiness program for the Baltimore area is exactly what the city needs. But, it can only happen if civic leaders commit to leveraging future construction investments with this community-based business model in mind.
The grim alternative is to continue buying into the discredited notion that the city benefits when it invests its construction dollars in a “race to the bottom” approach predicated upon a low-wage, low-skill, easily exploited, out-of-town workforce. Baltimore can’t afford for its participating contractors to persistently reject investing in skilled craft career training and education for city residents.
Baltimore has historically been defined by the strength and character of its neighborhoods and its people but last year’s events demonstrated the frailty of that strength.
Absent any new approaches and forward thinking on the part of city and state leaders, that strength will continue to erode.
Mark Coles is the Executive Director of the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment (C.H.O.I.C.E.).