By ANDREA WAXMAN
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
MILWAUKEE (AP) — When Ezzard White started One Hope Made Strong, a free skilled-trades training program for young men and women living in central Milwaukee, he had no workshop, little equipment and no staff.
It was fall 2013 and the construction industry, which had ground to a halt in the 2008-9 recession, was still stagnant.
But White, a retired electricity and electronics teacher who owns and operates EWS Electric, was concerned about young adults in the city having few prospects. With encouragement from some business and religious officials — and a lot of hope — White set out to use his knowledge and talents to bring more employment opportunities to as many students as he could.
“I just simply want to be a person who helped,” White said in a recent interview.
Now, five years later, after overcoming obstacles such as his two failed attempts to access make use of workshop space in Milwaukee Public schools, White is realizing his dream. The local construction industry is booming and, White said, 18 OHMS graduates who are employed in full-fledged construction apprenticeships have bought houses. In addition, two graduates — a man and a woman — have become journeymen.
In June, White hired 10 program participants to work as full-time electricians at the Legacy Lofts project, where they are wiring the project’s newest building.
White chose the three women and seven men, ages 21 to 46, from among his trainees, he said, because “they were so enthusiastic; they were so driven. They (stood) apart from your average students and they couldn’t wait to be a part of a project that’s working out in the community at a construction site.”
White is paying his workers “a living wage” — $22 an hour on average. It’s a bit more than the going rate, he said, because he wants to give them “a real incentive, something that makes them feel that it’s worth their while to work — and $7, $8, just won’t do it.”
Tyesha Townsel, 33, learned about the OHMS program, which has operated primarily out of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, when it was started.
The daughter of a contractor, Townsel said she has always been around and involved in building and repair projects.
“I’ve been working with my dad on some of his plumbing, electrical, drywall and painting since I was a kid,” Townsel said.
Having completed the program a year ago, Townsel worked on several demolition and construction projects before joining the Legacy Lofts crew. For her, the best thing about the OHMS program was the opportunity it gave her to brush up on things she had learned to do years ago, acquire some new skill and work with people who are of a similar age and from her own neighborhood, she said.
Curtis L. Evans, 46, has taken classes through the OHMS program for the past 18 months while working on the Legacy Lofts project and studying IT Support at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Evans worked for the city as a concrete-finisher helper from 2007 to 2014.
He has experience with smaller residential remodeling and repair projects, and said he has learned advanced electrical techniques through OHMS and the Legacy Lofts project.
“(From White) I learned that you have to put your heart into it because you don’t want things to go wrong where people might lose their lives,” he said.
Evans said he took classes on the trades in middle and high school and has since never really had trouble finding work. With such courses not being offered as much, he now worries about the future of young people.
“With Mr. White’s program, the few kids that are there, they have some hope and they’re willing to learn,” Evans said. At Legacy Lofts, learning is aided by opportunities to gain hands-on experience because “you need to be able to touch the things, you need to be able to see (them).”
White continues to teach students three nights a week. In addition to offering training in the skilled trades, he offers instruction in money management and so-called soft employment prerequisites, such as the ability to act appropriately in the workplace. Students don’t have to pay for anything, he said, but that may change because “when a person is paying . you’re forcing them to invest in themselves.”
For now, White is paying his contractors through his business, but he has applied for a subcontractors gap-financing line of credit from Legacy Redevelopment Corp. This relatively new program is designed to help small contractors access capital while they are waiting to be paid for their work.
Andrew Ziebell, construction project manager for Legacy Lofts, hired White partly to fulfill city Residential Preference Program requirements. His company, Greenfire Management, also wanted “to get local workers involved in this project,” he said.
Greenfire is responsible for hiring contractors, making sure budgets and schedules are adhered to, and overseeing projects, Ziebell said.
The company worked on the recently completed Historic Garfield Avenue Apartments and the soon-to-be-completed Griot apartment and museum development in Bronzeville. It has entered into joint-venture partnerships with Northcott Neighborhood House and other pre-apprenticeship training programs and small contractors in the city, according to Ziebell.
Greenfire has also provided instructional programs, including a class specifically for White and his team, who came to the Legacy Lofts project in June.
Hiring minority, central city workers is beneficial to many, Ziebell said.
“We’re working not only to bring in buildings but we’re also able to help the growth of local contractors who want to be involved,” he said.