by Kate Knable
Posted 12/3/2012 12:00 am
Updated 5 months ago
Like well-matched couples, program partners sometimes just seem to come together.
Such is the case with a new construction job training program scheduled to launch in January that joins homeless shelter Our House of Little Rock and contractor Snyder Environmental to meet complementary needs.
Our House is offering pre-screened and drug-free prospective employees, who are particularly motivated to work because their housing depends on their finding jobs, according to Georgia Mjartan, executive director of Our House.
Snyder, an environmental remediation contractor based in North Little Rock, is stepping forward with some program funding, in addition to offering entry-level construction jobs with above-average pay in the niche field of asbestos abatement.
A $200,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant and the Arkansas Construction Education Foundation are taking care of the training necessary to marry the two.
The EPA awarded the grant to the construction foundation last June. ACEF, a nonprofit that serves the Arkansas construction industry, will screen program applicants, hire instructors and host the asbestos abatement and other construction training in its Little Rock training center and work to match training program graduates with employers.
The training is offered for free to up to 20 homeless and unemployed or underemployed people per four-week session. Our House has committed to recruiting seven participants for each of the five sessions, which will occur during the course of two years.
Prospects who finish the program will earn the state certification that allows them to work in asbestos abatement; be trained to OSHA standards for Hazardous Waste Operations & Emergency Response; earn two national certifications for working in green and sustainable construction; and complete seven other classes that broaden their construction skills.
Snyder Environmental hired the grant writer who successfully applied for the $200,000 grant on behalf of ACEF and the other partners and has committed to paying stipends to Our House clients who participate in the training program. And the company expects to hire many of the program’s graduates.
Without the stipends from Snyder, Our House clients would be without income for four weeks and would be ineligible to continue living at Our House — hence, Snyder’s commitment to paying at least $16,000 in stipends only for Our House clients.
“Their job, so to speak, during that time frame will be to go to school and to successfully complete the program,” said Snyder CEO Joe Carter. “And then it’s our hope that Snyder is in a position to be able to give those employees full-time employment.”
Our House Needs
Our House, which is a shelter for the working homeless, served 1,057 people in 2011. The nonprofit organization requires its residents to find full-time work within two weeks of moving into the shelter and to save 75 percent of their earnings.
About 80 percent of Our House residents enter the shelter unemployed, according to Our House Assistant Director Ben Goodwin.
“A lot of our folks come in and actually are employed,” Mjartan said. “It’s just oftentimes those are low-paying, part-time jobs without health insurance, without any benefits.”
Our House provides job training, GED test preparation classes, practice job interviews and other assistance to people in need of employment, but during the past 10 years or so, it has had to cut back its adult education classes to make space for programs for a growing number of homeless children, Mjartan said.
In the 1990s, Our House was the first organization to offer a computer jobs learning program geared toward people who are homeless. That, at the time, “was really innovative,” Mjartan said. “It gave [clients] an edge on the job market.”
Now adult education classes take up only about one-fourth of the shelter’s 7,000-SF education center rather than the three-fourths they once did, because children’s programming has taken over, she said. The space for hands-on classes, such as the shelter’s former small-engine repair shop, is gone.
Another problem, due to the Great Recession, is that Our House clients arrive at the shelter and often have to settle for multiple part-time jobs or temporary jobs.
“Those are not our ideal for our clients because that means that they’re still living in that place of uncertainty, which is what we’re trying to avoid for them,” Mjartan said. “We want this to be a time when they can really anchor and rebuild their lives and leave here with a job that they’ve held steadily for a year, year and a half, with movement up the pay scale in their jobs. With a career.”
What Snyder Needs
On the other hand, Snyder Environmental, which has grown rapidly during the past five years, is looking for employees to work in the physically demanding field of asbestos abatement and has struggled to find qualified people to fill positions, according to Carter, Snyder’s CEO. That is despite the fact that even the entry-level jobs pay more than the average hourly wage for Arkansas, he said.
Entry-level asbestos workers at Snyder earn $25,000 to $28,000 per year, Carter said.
Due to “pretty rigorous insurance requirements, it’s difficult to subcontract,” Carter said. And the work, which involves demolition inside or on buildings as well as careful removal of floor tiles, adhesives, roofing, insulation and other building materials that contain asbestos fibers, isn’t easy. “I think it is very hard work,” Carter said.
In addition, the federal government highly regulates asbestos removal due to health risks associated with breathing in the fibers, he said.
Therefore, workers who remove and dispose of asbestos are required to be certified by the state to do the work, which involves wearing protective gear and tearing out asbestos materials in spaces shrouded in plastic, Carter said. Companies that work with asbestos and other environmental hazards often have to pay to train employees for working with such environmental hazards.
Recently, Snyder Environmental had a staff of 76, and more than half of those employees were asbestos abatement workers, Carter said. Carter bought Snyder Environmental five years ago.
“If we hire like we have hired in the past, hiring 30 [certified workers] a year would not be uncommon,” Carter said.
Carter’s company has stayed busy with asbestos work. Building materials containing asbestos were used as late as the 1990s in the U.S., and other countries are just beginning to understand and deal with the health risks, he said.
“There are few companies across the U.S. that do asbestos abatement,” Carter said. Even fewer do asbestos abatement at sea, he said. In January, Snyder Environmental is sending an asbestos crew to work on an oil storage facility off the coast of Nigeria.
“No telling where it’ll take us,” Carter said.
Darron Reed, 42, and Chuck Wilks, 54, were among five Our House clients who accepted demolition jobs with Snyder in October. Both are interested in advancing their careers and earning more money by taking advantage of the asbestos abatement training.
The opportunity to travel as an asbestos worker for Snyder appeals to Reed, he said. In looking for career advancement, Reed said he’s also thinking about caring for his four children and looking to retirement.
Although the relationship with Our House is young, Carter said the Our House workers have already proven to be better employees for Snyder than many temp agency hires, some of whom haven’t stayed on the job past their first lunch break.
Carter’s company isn’t the only one hiring asbestos workers, and ACEF will be using its contacts within the Arkansas construction industry to help those who complete the new program — from Our House and other organizations that work with the homeless — to find work.
“There are others involved in the industry that we’ll be placing these completers with,” said Schaeffer, the ACEF executive director. “I’ve surveyed several of those contractors and been assured that the completers of this program are going to be in demand. … They are going to be first in line to be hired.”
Travis Brown, 45, has lived at Our House for about 14 months and is among the Our House clients interested in the asbestos training program.
“I kind of want to get into a field where I can make a little more money,” Brown said.
“I’m always in for something new, especially something that’s going to advance me, not only in pay, but career-wise.”
Mjartan, with Our House, is looking for ways to provide opportunities that can again give the nonprofit’s clients “an edge” when competing for jobs. The asbestos training could be such a program, she said.
“Something that’s really unique about this partnership is it’s a career-ladder partnership in a field that is growing, where there’s demand in central Arkansas [and] well-paying jobs,” Mjartan said. “It’s everything we want.”
At least 164 different employers hired Our House clients in 2011 in more than 10 industries, including child care, construction, education, hospitality, manufacturing and retail. Our House served 1,057 people in 2011.
Required for ACEF Asbestos Training Program
• Must be currently homeless or chronically homeless and at least 18 years old.
• Must have a high school diploma, a GED diploma or be willing to take a GED test preparation course.
• Must be able to wear a respirator, lift at least 40 pounds by themselves and work in a confined space.
- Source: Steve Schaeffer, Arkansas Construction Education Foundation