It only took a couple years of college for 26-year-old Muhammad Al-Bilali to realize that spending four years racking up thousands of dollars in student loans wasn't for him.
"More than anything, I was looking for a skill," says the Louisville, Ky., resident. "I wasn't getting that in college."
Moreover, he wasn't interested in running up debt. But job prospects for a young high-school graduate in today's struggling economy are scarce. And for young African Americans like Al-Bilali, the job picture is grimmer, where unemployment for those under 29 is more than triple the national rate.
He found part-time work in Louisville's many warehouses, but none of those jobs offered much in terms of wages and benefits and none offered a path toward a real career or much of a shot at the middle class.
He heard about a program called the Construction Pipeline, a partnership between the Louisville Urban League and the Greater Louisville Building and Construction Trades Council, which recruits local residents for an intensive 120-hour pre-apprenticeship training curriculum in the basics of construction.
Covering everything from blueprint reading and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety procedures to an overview of the different trades, the program was just what Al-Bilali was looking for. He then followed up the program with a three-week electrician boot camp through Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 369 and, after working on a few sites as a construction electrician, was accepted as an IBEW apprentice last summer.
"I feel like I'm working on a career," he says. "I'm doing interesting work that challenges me every day, while getting paid to learn." And with a nine-month-old daughter at home, the pay and benefits mean he can give his family a spot in the middle class.
Al-Bilali's personal success story is only one of many made possible by the Construction Pipeline, which entered its fifth year in 2012. The program has trained more than 250 candidates in the basics of construction, resulting in 111 job placements—including some of the biggest projects in the metro area.
And with a primary focus on recruiting local residents, minorities and women into the industry, the Construction Pipeline is ensuring large construction projects in the Louisville metro area benefit local residents, while cementing strong relations between the building trades and community and civil rights leaders, particularly in the city's African American community.
"For a long time labor and the community were often at odds when it came to jobs," says local Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Joe Wise. "With the Construction Pipeline, we're not fighting over jobs; we are allies in creating them."
The program was initiated by the Louisville Arena Authority in 2005 to oversee the construction of the KFC Yum! Center. The Louisville City Council passed legislation that required publicly funded city projects to employ at least 20 percent minorities, 60 percent local residents and 5 percent women.
"Arena authority Chairman Jim Host wasn't initially the most favorable to unions, but through this project, he learned a lot about what we offer in terms of training," says Wise.
More than 35 graduates from the first Construction Pipeline class were put to work on the $238 million arena, surpassing the diversity goals set by the city council.
"The reality is that we in the building trades and the IBEW haven't always done enough to make sure our workforce represents the population in our community," says Local 369 Business Manager William Finn.
Going to worksites, Al-Bilali says he felt like he didn't always meet people's stereotype of a construction worker. "I'm sometimes one of the only guys on the job who looks like me, and occasionally get some looks like, 'What am I doing here?'"
But his age and background mean he gets lots of questions about the trade and how he got into it. "A lot of young people don't have any firsthand experience with the building trades or construction, and hopefully I'm exposing them to opportunities they've never thought of."
For Al-Bilali, the work of the Urban League and the Building Trades Council demystified the whole process of joining the trades. "There are a lot of people like me looking for an opportunity like this, but don't know how to go for it," he says.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November 2012 edition of The Electrical Worker.