Construction Slows; Demand for Construction Jobs Races Ahead

Unemployment among construction workers is running close to 20 percent, according to federal figures. But that isn’t stopping New Yorkers from trying to land jobs in the industry. WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman reports.

REPORTER: In a courtyard in Long Island City, Queens, two dozen workers are learning the basics of the construction trades: stacking cinder blocks and shoveling cement. These are union apprentices, preparing to become members of Locals 78 and 79. Tim Warrington, the apprenticeship coordinator, says it’s a tough program to get into.

WARRINGTON: Last year in a three day period, February 26th, 27th and 28th we had 2,500 people apply, 2523 apply in this three days.

REPORTER: That was the number of applicants for just 200 apprenticeship slots. This year, they’re offering only 150 slots to make sure there’s enough work to go around.

WARRINGTON: We are expecting at least as many if not more.

REPORTER: That interest in the field comes despite the fact that the nation lost 1.2 million construction jobs over the past year. The federal stimulus package is supposed to counter that, but only at a rate of about 300,000 jobs a year.

REPORTER: In a scruffy basement in an East Harlem public housing project, two dozen adults in their 20s and 30s are learning the basics of construction also. This morning, they watch their instructor, Jonathan Davis, turn on a pump that tests air quality. He tells them, "I love that sound."

DAVIS: I love that sound. The sound of what?

CLASS: Money

DAVIS: The sound of money. All right...

REPORTER: If the union apprentices have won the lottery, these trainees are playing scratch card after scratch card. A few may end up getting into the union, but for the most part they are preparing for non-union work.

INGRAM: Who has a cigarette?

REPORTER: And even though many have been drawn into his program by President Obama’s talk about green jobs, most of the construction jobs in New York City created by the stimulus package will be, because of federal regulations, union. That message either hasn’t made its way down to the trainees, or if it has, it hasn’t eroded their optimism.

INGRAM: Today we just got a lot more valuable information about regulations.

REPORTER: Brandon Ingram is a 21-year-old from the Bronx. A high school graduate, he was interning at the nonprofit Hip Hop Association, unable to find a paying job.

INGRAM: The issue was just getting landing an interview. That was the issue. I was online, Craig’s List, filled out application for retail.

REPORTER: Then he heard about Strive. Each morning, he attends asbestos abatement classes in the East Harlem basement. Then he takes the subway to a different training facility in SoHo, where he tries his hand at carpentry and plumbing.

INGRAM: Our core class is one of the first classes to actually do green construction training, so being one of the first is you know that’s a plus.

REPORTER: Even though he knows the labor market will be tough, Ingram says it’s worth taking a risk in order to land a long-term career.

INGRAM: It’s a good paying job. And if you hustle hard enough you’ll always have work. And that’s the key, you know, I hustle hard at any job that I acquire.

REPORTER: Besides, the administrators of the Strive training program predict that the stimulus money will trickle down to non-union projects.

Already, walking through Soho on his way to his afternoon session, Ingram passes by a lot construction sites, where work has resumed after a slow winter.

INGRAM: We’re surrounded by success right now.

REPORTER: On one of the sites, an office tower is going up that students can see through their break room window.

INGRAM: We sit there and say that’s going to be us in a couple months. We’re going to be doing the same thing, getting that 30-40-50 dollars an hour that they’re getting. We’re going to be doing the same thing.

REPORTER: Strive administrators say a more realistic starting wage would be 10 to 12 dollars an hour. But that still beats retail. For WNYC, I’m Matthew Schuerman.