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Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:01 am

Ready to work

Springfield groups combating exclusion with pool of trained minority workers

ILLUSTRATION BY KIRK LYTTLE/MCT

 

With about $4 billion in transportation and other projects planned for Springfield in the coming years, groups in Springfield are already working to ensure a fair share of the jobs generated go to minorities.

The Faith Coalition for the Common Good and Bridging the Gap, both based in Springfield, are helping women and people of color get the training necessary to be ready when the expected construction boom happens. They’re also pushing the City of Springfield to increase the ratio of minorities hired, in an effort to reverse a historical absence of women and people of color in the city’s workforce.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced in December 2012 that it supported a proposal to shift Springfield’s Third Street rail corridor to the existing 10th Street rail corridor. The project is estimated to cost $315 million in 2010 dollars before inflation, although funding for the project has not been secured yet.

It’s unclear how many jobs will be created by the rail consolidation because the railroads could use their own current employees for at least part of the work. That’s exactly what the two Springfield groups are hoping to avoid. Instead, they want as many jobs as possible to go to women and people of color from Springfield.

Fred Jackson, coordinator of the 100 Ready Workers program for the Faith Coalition, says the group has already helped about 275 people obtain training to work as pipefitters, heavy equipment operators and other laborers. Once the project is complete, Jackson says proposed facilities along the rail corridor will need maintenance workers, and businesses that may spring up nearby will need employees.

“We’re working to make sure people from around here get those jobs,” Jackson said.

The 100 Ready Workers program was originally conceived by Gamaliel, a nationwide network of faith-based groups which work to solve social issues. The Faith Coalition is part of Gamaliel’s network and adapted the program for Springfield. It involves first identifying people who are looking for work, then connecting them with training programs like the workforce development courses at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. The Faith Coalition is also working with trade unions to identify upcoming job opportunities and training.

Another Springfield group, Bridging the Gap, is doing similar work. Led by Springfield community organizer Larry Beckom, Bridging the Gap is especially focused on increasing the number of women and people of color working for the City of Springfield. [See “Looking for jobs,” Aug. 29, 2013, by Patrick Yeagle.]

Shelly Heideman, executive director of the Faith Coalition, says the group’s work on jobs started with the Rail Community Benefits Agreement that laid out expectations for jobs, safety, economic development and other aspects of the rail project. It has been signed by Springfield Mayor Michael Houston, the Sangamon County Board, Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Heideman says the 100 Ready Workers program is about more than simply ensuring proportionate employment of minorities. It’s about addressing a need for work in the community. Heideman says the Faith Coalition surveyed people in its program and found that the majority were between the ages of 30 and 45, with a significant number of people also in the 55 and older category. That may indicate a poor job environment, as younger people are typically less likely to be employed than those age ranges.

“I think that gives a really clear picture of the unemployed and the underemployed,” Heideman said. “When you talk one-on-one with people and hear what their story is, it’s just amazing. There has got to be something happening here. People are tired of going from low-wage part-time job to part-time job. They’re looking for a real career.”

In addition to the rail consolidation project, the Faith Coalition anticipates job opportunities arising from highway construction projects, sidewalk repair, sewer work and other projects in the Springfield area.

“The workforce needs to reflect the community,” Heideman said. “We need to look at the issues of poverty and racism, and the way to get people out of poverty is to give them a job. Systemic racism is kind of the overarching theme that has kept people in poverty, so this is a way to address that, as well. It’s kind of a spider web; it’s all connected.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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