Cleveland wants to use $10M for recruitment, training of workers to rebuild city’s infrastructure

Written by: Kim Palmer
Published: January 30, 2023 05:45 AM

Read the full article on Crain's Cleveland Business

Volunteers with the ACE program provide a building demonstration for students at Lincoln West High School.
Volunteers with the ACE program provide a building demonstration for students at Lincoln West High School. Alaina Battle

Historic levels of federal infrastructure investments are looming, and if the city of Cleveland means to take advantage of the dollars coming available, thousands of workers need to be trained and added to the workforce.

"There's a confluence of pressures between policy priorities and labor shortages that we know exist, projects we have committed to already, and new projects we anticipate through future federal investment," said Michelle Rose, executive director of Ohio Means Jobs Cleveland-Cuyahoga County office.

Rose has experience in this regard.

She has done multiple stints with the U.S. Department of Labor, most recently during President Joe Biden's administration working in intergovernmental affairs, congressional and operations. She worked with the Labor Department through the drafting of $280 billion in CHiPs Act funding and $370 billion in clean energy improvements through the Inflation Reduction Act, so she's acutely aware of the need for skilled workers to take advantage of new programs, replace an aging construction workforce and reconnect unemployed residents to work.

"We knew at that time we were working on the bills that communities needed to get ready for this historic investment — and by 'get ready,' that means we need to prepare a workforce to do all of the work," Rose said.

This need is the foundation of a $10 million program proposed at the beginning of 2023 that would be funded by city of Cleveland ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars and designed not only to boost worker numbers, but to do it in a way that creates a sustainable pipeline that brings in younger, disconnected and minority residents.

An ordinance to put the program in motion was passed out of Cleveland City Council's workforce and education committee meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24. It's now on the way to council's finance committee for another hearing, where supporters hope it quickly moves to a vote by the full council for passage, before budgeting hearings begin in February.

The $10 million, an unprecedented ask by City Hall for workforce development, would provide "flexible dollars" to the local office of Ohio Means Jobs, which then would distribute those funds to existing organizations that already identify, recruit, train, support and connect people with jobs in what's known as the "built environment" — an umbrella term for skilled labor in residential, commercial, road, bridge, sewer and public transit construction. It also refers to the burgeoning fields of broadband deployment, lead and brownfield remediation, and green infrastructure buildout.

Ohio Means Jobs would distribute funds to more than a dozen existing community outreach, training and employment partners with proven track records, rather than trying to build new programs from the ground up.

Among organizations that have signed letters of intent with the proposed program are training partners Hard Hatted Women, the Spanish American Committee, Cleveland Builds and Youth Opportunities Unlimited, known as Y.O.U. In addition, Towards Employment, the Construction Employers Association, the Urban League and the Greater Cleveland Partnership have signed up to help with employer connections.

The $10 million would be allocated this way: $5 million for training; $1 million to help scale up minority subcontractor representation; $1.2 million for outreach and marketing; $1.5 million specifically set aside for youth outreach; $300,000 to fund operations and assist in tracking the data to evaluate program success; and $1 million for supportive services to attract workers to diversify the nearly 88% white-male construction industry. (Ohio Means Jobs has a goal of 75% of all 3,000 trainees under the program representing women and/or residents of color over the next four years.)

To meet those numbers, Ohio Means Jobs has set a geographic focus on Cleveland's East Side, which aligns with other investments from Mayor Justin Bibb's office. It will partner with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and community development corporations (CDCs) to reach residents who are unemployed or underemployed.

Tania Menesse, president and CEO of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, said the city's CDCs have been laying the groundwork recently for the program by connecting residents with training and employment.

"More than half of our CDCs are actively engaged with connecting residents into the job pipeline. This will just help to increase that capacity. And provide those wraparound services in a real way," Menesse said.

Cleveland Neighborhood Progress will act as a conduit to training and support services such as subsidized child care and transportation.

"It is not easy for somebody to leave a job, even if it's not a good job. And to go get trained to do something new is even harder if your health care is tied to that job, or you don't have child care," Menesse added.

Bringing a younger demographic of worker to the industry is something Glen Shumate, executive vice president of the Construction Employers Association, has been working on for more than a decade. Through the ACE Mentor Program, Shumate's organization reaches out to potential workers, including K-12 students and recent graduates, who are interested in pursuing a career in the design and construction trades.

"That really is our secret sauce," Shumate said.

But organizations such as his need more resources to connect trainees to jobs.

"We have relationships, touch points and demand," he said. "What we need is to capitalize on all that, and I think that's what these funds could mean to us, to help us to scale up these programs."

Training for a skilled labor position gives workers portability and career longevity, Shumate said. Someone trained today as a lead mediator can work later in commercial construction, or someone who helps with a broadband deployment project could go on and work on grid modernization, he added.

Rose said the program, if implemented, would make its impact over time.

"We don't expect that 100% of the 3,000 (trainees) will then end up being placed in these construction jobs or infrastructure jobs, but the idea is to kind of reconnect them with the workforce system," she said. "If they ended up going to work in manufacturing or health care, I'd also be thrilled. Part of it is reconnecting people to the system, to services, to opportunities."