Ten years ago, two disasters hit New Orleans. One was natural — Katrina. The second was man-made: a disaster that was the failure of local, state and federal leaders to seize the rebuilding of a city as a vehicle for educational and training opportunities for disadvantaged populations that would put them on a ladder to the middle class.
Ten years after Katrina, 52 percent of African-American men in New Orleans are unemployed. Fifty percent of New Orleans’ African-American children live in poor households — a higher percentage than when Katrina hit.
The solution requires more than linking those looking for jobs to businesses that need workers.
It’d be better to connect the long-term unemployed with the education and training necessary to secure “careers” that last a lifetime and pay good, family-sustaining, middle-class wages and benefits.
That’s what the Building Trades Unions of greater New Orleans tried to do in the aftermath of Katrina. But without the support of government and civic leaders, our efforts were doomed to fail.
Within 20 months of Katrina, our Building Trades Unions — together with North America’s Building Trades Unions and the Louisiana Works Workforce Commission — opened the Gulf Coast Construction Career Center in New Orleans. It’s an “apprenticeship-readiness” program designed to enable low-income and vulnerable youth to enter the apprenticeship/journeyman process via union-approved construction training. We’ve replicated the model in more than 75 metropolitan areas and are trying to put it in place along the Gulf Coast.
Over two-and-a-half years, the GCCCC graduated 31 classes totaling more than 400 students, 90 percent of them New Orleans residents. The program had an 89 percent completion rate; 90 percent of graduates were African-American.
Unfortunately, the program was terminated because politicians bowed to pressure from the “open-shop” contractor community by refusing to attach labor standards or local-hire provisions to publicly funded contracts for the rebuilding of New Orleans.
So most work went to out-of-state contractors employing out-of-state workers.
Since Katrina, more than $70 billion in taxpayer money has been spent on rebuilding projects without any policies requiring “high-road” construction, which includes enforceable local-hire provisions, apprenticeship utilization, and labor standards with monitoring and penalties for noncompliance.
Should the city refuse to embrace the high-road approach, New Orleans’ urban core will continue to face high rates of unemployment among African-American males.
director of Gulf Coast Operations, North America’s Building Trades Unions
Robert “Tiger” Hammond, III
president, Louisiana State Building and Construction Trades Council