'A step in and a step up': New program aims to bring nontraditional candidates into trades through training, certifications

<p><p>Tuesday morning at the Northwest Laborers Training center in northeast Spokane, there are Mexican pastries on the counter. Workers are conversing about their tasks of the day. A manager is giving direction on what to do and not do when moving concrete. </p></p><p><p>This is the culture of the Pre-Employment Preparation Program, a new 20-day, 120-hour class where a handful of students are aiming to better their lives through careers in trades.</p></p><p><p>The apprentice-like atmosphere helps students learn hands-on, but also encourages other aspects of the jobs such as construction math, job safety, equipment and tool use, and financial literacy. Throughout the free, four-week program, the students were also paid $100 a week.</p></p><p><p>In its first year, PEPP is supported by organizations such as the Northwest Laborers Training, the International Union of Operating Engineers and state Rep. Timm Orsmby. It is funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund and other local, individual and group donors.</p></p><p><p>With PEPP as a pilot program, board chair Natasha Hill acknowledged that trust needed to be built with its first class of students.</p></p><p><p>“Having someone like Rep. Orsmby involved sends a message that there’s people at the state level that actually care about what’s happening in these trade programs,” Hill said. “We want them to know we’re creating a bridge for them to get access to those well-paying jobs and we want to make sure that their background isn’t what’s holding them back. (We emphasize) that it’s going to be their skills and what we bring to the table, and PEPP is here to create that bridge.”</p></p><p><p>PEPP focuses on those who have disadvantages entering the work force, such as the formerly incarcerated, those without high school diplomas and nontraditional populations of the Spokane community. Prospective students had to apply and then interview for a spot.</p></p><p><p>“There is some effort to bring in diverse board members so they can see who’s running the show … as well as folks in the program that can build cultural and work connections and relate to folks,” Hill said. “We want people to be able to see themselves in these good paying jobs and being successful in them.”</p></p><p><p>Luis Licea, who was born in Mexico, has been part of the Northwest Laborers Training for 15 years after graduating from an apprenticeship in 2004. He has taught labor workshops and apprenticeships in both English and Spanish in places such as Yakima and Pasco. His labor specialties are in masonry work, concrete and underground utilities.</p></p><p><p>“In places like Yakima that have high Spanish-speaking populations, I’ve been able to open doors for different people,” Licea said. “By the time they get done here, they’ll be able to apply to a joining apprenticeship council and they can get into an apprenticeship and work their way up.”</p></p><p><p>Certifications include first aid, OSHA-10, traffic control and a forklift qualification credential. Students are able to pursue the program as it opens up doors to a wide range of options in the trades.</p></p><p><p>Diversity in experience matters in these spaces. Colton Gerard, a student who formerly built military sheds, passed on a chance to operate the forklift and instead walked Michael Angell through the correct way to clamp pieces of wood down to saw.</p></p><p><p>“I think they were expecting much younger kids but, no, we’re all in our late 30s and 40s,” said Gerard, who is 36. “This is a step in and a step up. It’s given me a pathway to a program that I want to get into.”</p></p><p><p>In the second week of the program, Licea’s students were learning how to operate a forklift that can lift up to 6,000 pounds.</p></p><p><p>Amid the noisy chaos, he used hand signals to motion how to “boom in” and “boom out,” terminology that explains the direction in which the forklift lifts and moves items.</p></p><p><p>Licea also emphasized to his students the importance of consistent work ethic in little things like being on time, showing initiative and helping other students.</p></p><p><p>“We’re committed and want to make sure everyone completes this program because we have those connections with the (labor) coordinators and directors. We want to make sure they succeed,” he said.</p></p><p><p>Different students face different challenges in order to do that. Angell, 28, works at a gas station and “is done with low-pay and no-benefits jobs.” Angell’s Achilles’ heel is the math curriculum of decimals and fractions.</p></p><p><p>“But I’m looking for a better lifestyle, and this has been a great experience so far,” Angell said. “The people are great and helpful.”</p></p><p><p>Anthony Bennett of Ellensburg, is excited to find opportunity, but also achievement. He did not graduate high school, nor has a GED, and completing the program would “be amazing” for him.</p></p><p><p>“I just want to better my life,” Bennett, 35, said. “This has opened up a lot of things, of work options for me besides fast food, which I’ve been in all my life, and I’m tired of that kind of work.”</p></p><p><p>Only eight days remain in the PEPP program. Participants will receive trade certifications in the specific labor they’ve taken interest in. Angell has gravitated toward roofing, while Gerard is journeying into a career of electric engineering.</p></p><p><p>“This has been great, especially with the teachers and experience they carry,” Collin Creer, 29, said. “Welding has kept me busy during the winter, and this is something I’m interested in further.”</p></p><p><p>After passing their operations and written tests, Licea and other event coordinators will host a graduation ceremony on Nov. 19.</p></p><p><p>“For those who don’t have any degree or diploma at all, can you imagine walking out of here with five certifications?” he said. “It can change not only his life, but his generations behind him, his kids’ kids.”</p></p><p><p><em>Editors Note: The previous version of this article states the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund is the sole donor for the PEPP program. It has been updated to reflect the local, organization and individual donors who have donated as well. </em></p></p>