Apprentices build better lives Careers: A project manager joins with clergy and a city agency to provide jobs at the Ravens stadium for Baltimore's disadvantaged.

March 16, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

As $220 million spills out of state treasuries and into the hands of architects, contractors and project managers raising the Ravens stadium on the banks of the Patapsco River, a handful of $7.50-an-hour jobs is changing lives at the bottom of the pecking order.

Alice Hoffman -- project manager for the Maryland Stadium Authority -- was determined that some of the millions being spent would bring positive change to the lives of those who were not born sitting pretty on the 50-yard line.

"I feel motivated to correct some of the wrongs in society that the politicians haven't," says Hoffman of contract clauses that reserved 100 apprentice jobs for the disadvantaged. "It was simply to do good when I had the power to do it."

Hoffman has threatened to withhold payment from some contractors until they fulfilled the obligation to fill one-fourth of their apprentice jobs with unproven labor. Applicants had to meet three requirements: be able to read at a fifth-grade level, be clean of drugs and alcohol, and have the strength to lift 50 pounds.

Since ground was broken in July 1996, the physical work of building the Ravens stadium has provided steady employment to about 900 people, ranging from master craftsmen to unskilled laborers. Of those jobs, 68 have been awarded to unskilled, down-on-their-luck men referred to Hoffman by local clergy and a city agency called Employ Baltimore.

Thirty have stayed with it. The rest quit or were fired.

James Herrington is one of those who show up every morning to work on one of the biggest buildings ever constructed in Maryland -- a colossal, 165-foot tall, burgundy-brick stadium that will seat 64,800 football fans.

"I love this job," says Herrington, a 32-year-old apprentice electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24. "Man, I love this job."

With a resume defined by a high school diploma, a decade of free-lance disc jockey gigs and a stint as a G. C. Murphy security guard, Herrington was unemployed 14 months ago when his mother-in-law told him that there were jobs for the asking at the stadium.

Today, he's making $7.84 an hour with Enterprise Electric, which will jump to $9 an hour next month, and he's studying electrical engineering at Catonsville Community College.

The money stretches thin over bills for six children -- four who live with him and two from a previous marriage. But together with his wife's modest salary, the Herringtons are making it.

The family believes that things will improve as Herrington learns his trade and makes the five-year climb up the union scale to a $44,000-a-year journeyman's salary.

"There's a different feeling in the house. Bringing my check home to my wife and paying my child support makes for a lot

less arguing and frustration for everyone," he says. "This job helps me stand on my own two feet. Not just for myself, but my kids. I come home to a loving family that I'm taking care of. That's what I've always wanted."

Says his mother, Ruth Thompson, who sometimes brings James a sandwich on the job: "He comes over for my big Sunday dinner and does his homework. He's constantly talking about his job. His friends want to know how he did it. He tells them, but they're not making any moves."

Herrington and his wife, Colette, had been renting a house in the Westport section of South Baltimore when he took the stadium job.

They recently moved to a bigger place near Oliver and Gay streets and plan to buy a house in the city after he finishes classes at Catonsville.

"There's still a lot of good neighborhoods in the city," says Herrington.

And plenty of good people living in them if James Herrington is any example, says his boss, Enterprise Electric manager Stephen Churchman.

"James has shined for us from day one, but without this program, his chances of landing down here would be diminished if not abolished," says Churchman. "Under normal circumstances, anywhere from 500 to 800 people apply for those apprenticeships. I've brought James into the office and showed him the math -- $22.05 an hour with benefits and a pension if he stays with it. That's a pretty attractive reason to stay in the good graces of your foreman."

Churchman says that he's had to fire three Employ Baltimore apprentices hired by his company for poor performance or attitude. A fourth quit to join the Army.

Herrington is the grandson of a Key Highway shipyard worker. His father worked a waterfront crane and his mother is on the cafeteria staff at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Yet Herrington says that by the time he was coming of age in a deteriorating neighborhood near Pulaski Street and Edmondson Avenue in southwest Baltimore, there weren't a lot of men heading out to work in the morning.

"My mother would point to the guys standing on the corner with their beer and drugs and say: 'You can't go out here and get the things you want without a good job,' " he remembers.

"All my life I've been trying to avoid the corner."

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