Getting a leg up from far down

3 programs seek to put low-wage workers on the first rung of careers in biotechnology, construction and health care


Donald W. Thompson, 30, works at a warehouse for $9.60 an hour, about the best he could hope to earn without a high-school diploma. But he has three young children, and the money isn't enough.

"I want to better myself, you know?" said Thompson, who lives in East Baltimore. "For my family, because we can't live how I grew up."

One of the city's most intractable dichotomies is the fact that the average Baltimore employer pays wages that are among the highest in the state, yet city residents earn salaries that are among the lowest. Too frequently, they can't land the good jobs.

Now local nonprofits are designing programs to bridge that gap.

Foundations and job-help providers are launching three training programs early next year to help city residents break into fields that pay well and need workers: construction, biotechnology and health care.

The initiatives are meant to prepare participants for additional education - an apprenticeship in a construction trade, for instance. All three are free. And the construction program will take residents who have the hardest time getting jobs: High-school dropouts and former offenders.

"I think it could make a huge difference for people in Baltimore," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force, which is overseeing the East Baltimore Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program, the construction initiative. "It's forming a pipeline to help lower-skill people to get into these higher-wage jobs."

Half the households in the city earned less than $35,000 last year, compared with a median of $61,000 statewide, according to state planning estimates.

Traditional job-skills programs are geared to workers, helping them to overcome barriers such as illiteracy and pointing them to employment opportunities.

But now some providers - including those involved in the new Baltimore programs - are considering the needs of employers as well. They're focusing on industries with shortages and asking for company input. They're hoping to get better results, especially for residents stuck in dead-end jobs.

The Baltimore metropolitan chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group of nonunion contractors, will run the pre-apprenticeship training with advice from a steering committee of employers.

"Right now, finding skilled people is hands-down the biggest issue in construction by far," said chapter president Mike Henderson, whose group offers apprenticeship classes in Baltimore County and hopes to expand that into the city in about a year. "If you're a skilled trades person ... you will be in demand."

Jerry Rubin, a vice president at Jobs for the Future, a Boston research, policy and technical assistance group, calls this "the next wave" of work force development and said Baltimore is among a handful of cities trying it.

"As far as I'm concerned, there is no point ... training people where there is not an employer or a group of employers directly involved," Rubin said. Otherwise, "you're really misleading people. You're training people for something that may or may not exist."

The jobs targeted in Baltimore exist, and their pay is a big step up from minimum wage.

Laboratory associates typically earn about $12 an hour to start and can reach $19 an hour in four years, said the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland Inc. The Baltimore nonprofit will launch a three-month basic skills initiative called BioStart in January to prepare residents for its three-month laboratory associates program.

The Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare Inc., a consortium of foundations, medical providers and institutions, will offer basic-skills training next year to help people qualify for certification programs that lead to jobs such as radiological technician, which pays $18 to $28 an hour.

Average wages for plumbers, carpenters and electricians who have finished apprenticeships are $20 to $25 an hour - more than $40,000 a year, not counting overtime - and employees working through the four-year apprenticeship process see their pay rise steadily toward that mark.

"I've never made that much before," said East Baltimore resident Jacqueline R. Turner, 38, who is hoping to become an electrician.

Turner has struggled in "survival jobs" such as painting because she has multiple felony charges on her record. Training looks to her like a chance to turn her life around. "This is important - I'm tired of being on the bottom."

Victor K. Carter, who also wants to be an electrician, is determined to make it into the first pre-apprenticeship class in January so he can pull himself out of an $8.50-an-hour job as a builder of burial vaults. His morning commute from Northeast Baltimore to North Laurel takes him about 2 1/2 hours by subway and bus.

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