By Rhonda Buckhold
Pivotal moments in life often present as hard decisions– to do one thing or another, which will ultimately change life as you know it. Charles Davis realized he’d had that moment when he graduated from the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Highway Construction Careers Training Program in 2007 at the age of 45.
“It changed my life,” Davis said. “I earn an honest paycheck. I got married. I have a mortgage and am a positive, productive member of society.”
Davis is now a member of International Laborers Union of North America Local #477 in Springfield because of the program being taught at Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC). He took the initiative to apply for the program, which is fully funded through the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). He did the work required and now he is reaping the rewards and giving back by encouraging others.
“The program is making a profound difference in lives throughout Illinois,” said Pam Simon, director of the Office of Business Workforce Diversity for IDOT.
Simon says the Highway Construction Careers Training Program – HCCTP for short – is intended to increase the number and relative percentages of historically underutilized individuals working on IDOT highway construction projects.
“The training program is proving to be beneficial beyond the intent of increasing diversity in construction careers,” she said. “HCCTP utilizes members of the local trades as instructors and liaisons to the trade industry. The quality of work and availability to connect with qualified workers is being boosted by the school’s partnerships.”
She adds that the instructors train the students to real-world standards.
“This provides more fluidity for trainees to move into labor apprenticeships,” she said. “Financial incentives are also offered to contractors who hire HCCTP trainees, creating a greater chance of placement.”
Brad Schaive, business manager at Laborer’s International Union Local 447, says the program is “a great opportunity and investment.”
“It opened doors that otherwise were closed to an entire group of workers who just didn’t have a means to get there,” he said.
Schaive has been involved since the inception of the program and has been impressed with the entire process, calling it “first rate” for the efforts and benefits to all the organizations and people involved.
“There is an emphasis on underrepresented groups, but mainly we are trying to provide qualified applicants to unions and contractors in the community,” said Lynn Whalen, LLCC’s executive director of public relations and marketing.
She adds that the entire program, which is administered by the Illinois Community College Board, is provided at no cost to students, thanks to grant funding from IDOT.
“Students are also given a stipend during the program to assist with transportation, childcare, and some other related expenses,” Whalen said. “The grant also pays for all union application fees for students graduating from the program.”
Julie Rourke, workforce development director, oversees many of the practical aspects of the classes that are held at the Workforce Careers Center on the LLCC campus.
“Our goal is to assist students in getting into a union apprenticeship program with one of the local unions,” Rourke said. “We work with 16 different unions in our area. We have six part-time instructors throughout the program as well as several contractors who do the certifications for the program.They are all credentialed in education, union journeymen and certified trainers.”
She says it takes commitment to graduate and to work through the apprenticeships, calling it “rigorous.” The process begins with an orientation, a math and reading assessment and an individual interview. Students are required to have documentation for identity and citizenship and to show they have a high-school diploma or GED.
The intensive 20-week pre-apprenticeship program starts with six weeks of classroom training. Rourke said that the program is working well, in part due to its standards for success. The class runs Monday through Thursday, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Participants in the program are expected to treat the training as they would their job,” Rourke said.
Classroom components are a crucial part of the curriculum, according to Simon.
“The aspect of the training that focuses on life-skills is to provide opportunity to those who come from challenging situations,” she said. “Many of our students have never had to manage a checkbook or been on an interview, so we provide training in these areas to help them as they progress. We’re providing them an opportunity to change their life, and they have to be committed to work hard.”
Criminal history and prior work history are not disqualifiers. All prospective trainees are administered a drug test during the intake process. If they do not pass, they are welcome to apply again when they can pass it. Periodic random drug screening, maintaining a valid driver license and meeting strict attendance guidelines that mirror highway construction industry standards are required for real-world construction workers and thus are required for trainees in the program. Students who complete the program will receive a certificate from the LLCC Workforce Development Department.
IDOT’s funding continues to provide assistance for students after they complete the training program.
“We also have a required follow up with students for one year; however, we do not have a limit on how long we will assist students,” Whalen said. “We regularly alert students to job opportunities during and after the program. We send mailings about union application deadlines and keep an up-to-date job bulletin in the building. Students are introduced to LLCC Career Services staff and may use those services as long as they need.
”HCCTP is changing dynamics by creating more availability of a diverse, trained workforce.
“IDOT’s role is to help ensure contractors have a diverse workforce,” Simon said. “One of the ways to help contractors to meet their workforce goals is by utilizing this program.”
Schaive agrees that the program is filling the gap by training and connecting the ready and willing workers with employers in need of employees who understand the expectations of the position they are filling. The fast pace of the construction business is part of the reason it has been slower to conform to a more diverse workforce.
“It brings the workers and employers together in a way that allows the work ethic and skill to be observed and crafted for specific needs, abilities and desires,” Schaive said.
Toward the end, there is always a real-world project – usually more than one during a program. Students have participated in building projects on campus and in the community. They are currently planning a conference room for the Spring Street Veterans Renaissance in Springfield.
Rourke said that during fiscal year 2016, 48 students started the program and 43 of them completed it. Of those, 27 were African-American men and 12 were women. Now, 40 of the students from that class are employed in a job related to their training, with 39 of them being part of a union or union apprenticeship program.
Since his graduation in 2007, Charles Davis has returned to give a pep talk to the new students in each course.
“Working has given me a lot of self-esteem and freedom to make better choices,” he said, explaining why he speaks to the new recruits. “Yes, it was hard work, but I feel that it is important for people to become informed about HIRE Education and follow suit.”
Three class sessions per year are offered at LLCC. The final class session for this fiscal year begins Feb. 13 and will end in late June. Interested individuals may call Tom Spears at 217-786-3675 or visit the HCCTP website at bit.ly/highwaytraining. u