A crew of 12 UnderConstruction interns arrived at a vacant lot in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood before 9 a.m. today. Their task was to build a garage from the ground up, and within two hours the structure had begun taking shape.
The concrete foundation had settled. The framework was up. Interns were taking turns shingling the roof in pairs.
Crouching low to nail a strip of siding onto the garage’s exterior, 17-year-old Sapphire Thompson looked up from her hammer and beamed with pride.
“At first I didn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Are we really going to build a garage?’” the incoming senior at St. Paul Johnson High School said. “But look at this. We’re going to do it.”
Thompson is one of 23 students working as UnderConstruction interns this summer. In its ninth year, the program introduces urban teens, many from minority communities, to careers in the construction trades.
During the eight-week, paid internship, participants receive training in OSHA 10 safety compliance, financial literacy, physical fitness (“making sure they’re limber and nobody gets hurt,” program coordinator Ethan Laubach said with a chuckle) and so-called “soft skills” for employment – time management, communication and the like.
“About 60 percent of this program is work-related skills,” Laubach said. “We’re teaching the construction stuff, but it’s also about how to have a job.”
The curriculum brings interns to several union jobsites and training facilities, including Sheet Metal Workers Local 10, Painters Local 61, Ironworkers Local 512 and the Laborers. A panel of professionals from the management side of the industry talks to interns as well.
The goal, Laubach said, is to get young adults thinking about careers they might not hear about from their guidance counselors or family members.
“Young people don’t get enough exposure to these kind of career options now,” Laubach said. “Schools are pushing people toward college. This is a great way to try things out and get exposed to an industry that offers a wide range of jobs.”
UnderConstruction also exposes the industry to potential hires – or apprentices – from backgrounds currently underrepresented. Laubach launched the program 10 years ago in an attempt to “help the industry absorb people who are not like most people already in the industry, and to get adults in the industry thinking about the emerging workforce.”
It’s working. UnderConstruction boasts a number “graduates” who have gone on to successful careers in construction, including the first Hmong-American project manager in the country – a woman, no less – and a handful of union journeymen.
Thompson, one of three female interns in the UnderConstruction program this summer, is using the experience to prepare herself for another male-dominated career path. After graduation next spring, Thompson plans to enlist in the military.
“I get picked on sometimes – ‘Let a man handle that!’ – but I like to prove I can do it, and I will do it,” Thompson said. “This kind of gets me set up for what I’m going to have to overcome in the military too.”
A big reason for UnderConstruction’s success is the partnerships Laubach has developed with construction firms like Kraus Anderson, PCL, McGough and Mortenson, as well as agencies like the Department of Labor and Industry and the Frogtown Community Development Corporation.
The vacant lot where Thompson other interns erected a garage today is owned by the Frogtown CDC. Blocks away, another UnderConstruction crew tackled an improvement project at the CDC’s headquarters.
For Marcus Byington, a 15-year-old from St. Paul, the vacant lot provided a first taste of what it’s like to work on a construction jobsite.
“It’s hands on. I love that,” Byington said. “It’s so visual. Putting hammer to nail – you can’t do that on paper. I like the hands-on learning.”
For more information on UnderConstruction, or to find out how your union can get involved in supporting the curriculum, go to the project’s Facebook page.