Project IMPACT Puts Jersey City Residents on a Path Towards Success with Good Paying, Union Jobs

September 22, 2015

JERSEY CITY, NJ – For years, Muslimah Mays worked as an office clerk for various companies, earning just enough to pay rent and buy food. But her life changed for the better last fall. She joined Project IMPACT, a local program set up by union, civic and elected leaders to recruit and train minorities and veterans to work as union plumbers, electricians, carpenters and in other building trades.

Now, Mays, 43, works as a plumbing pre-apprentice.

“I couldn’t progress, I couldn’t grow,” she says of the clerking jobs. “I got tired of sitting there. I wasn’t learning anything. I want to have a future. I dream of owning a house. I couldn’t do that just sitting there. I am so excited now. I enjoy this work and I have a future.”

The unemployment rate in Jersey City is 10 percent, nearly double the national average, and public officials recognize that Latinos and African Americans have an even more difficult time finding work, especially jobs paying good wages. While development is expanding in the city, there aren’t many minorities or veterans working on the projects.

Project IMPACT was created in late 2014 to address that problem, to ensure that more residents of the local community benefit from the building boom taking place in the city.

It began when Building America CDE, a subsidiary of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT), invested $10 million of New Markets Tax Credits to help finance the construction of the MacMahon Student Center on the campus of St. Peter’s University in Jersey City. When the project was completed, a job fair was held to tell Jersey City residents about opportunities in the local building trades.

“Our goal is to facilitate development projects that will revitalize communities and create jobs for union workers,” says Eric Price, HIT’s Executive Vice President and CEO of Building America. “We wanted more community residents benefiting from the construction projects in Jersey City, so we supported creating an entity that would lead to more local residents joining the building trades unions.”

Carol M. Nixon, Director of HIT’s New York office, says that when Building America helped finance the building at St. Peter’s, it was critical that a commitment be made to the city’s residents. “The building and construction trades’ leadership was having a difficult time recruiting young Jersey City residents into the unions,” she says. “They were finding that many of the young people were unable to pass the tests required to enter the union apprenticeship program. Collectively, we saw an opportunity to make an impact on the residents of Jersey City.”

But the initial job fair was disappointing. Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea says the attendees were diverse, but many seemed disinterested. “We realized that this job fair was like most others. People show up, they get information, they learn that they have to pay to take aptitude and drug tests, buy books to study and then pay to get into the union; 90 percent leave thinking,“ ‘This is not going to work for me.’ ”

O’Dea and Hudson County Building Trades President Patrick Kelleher realized that to be successful, they needed a different approach.

O’Dea enlisted the help of Jonathan Perez, 26, (who O’Dea has raised like his son since he was four years old), to recruit. “These young adults didn’t want to hear from old, gray-haired, white guys, we needed someone they could relate to,” says O’Dea. They held a subsequent meeting with 35 people. Everyone filled out an application with contact information, and O’Dea and Kelleher later contacted each one, dealing with their individual concerns and encouraging them to participate.

“We realized that there were lots of reasons why it could go wrong, but we decided to deal with the obstacles as they came up and keep pushing forward,” O’Dea says. “We let recruits know that this isn’t a quick fix. You don’t come in, sign a paper and go to work. This is about starting a good career, one that will let you support your family and in five years earn $70,000, $80,000 or more a year with overtime.”

Also supporting O’Dea, Kelleher and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, the HIT and Building America initially set up a nonprofit entity associated with the labor movement, the American Reinvestment Company (ARC), which donated $20,000 to help launch Project IMPACT.

Quickly, the effort evolved into far more than a job recruitment project; it blossomed into a unifying force for the community, one that is bringing elected, civic and community leaders together to prepare city residents for good-paying jobs that can improve their quality of life, as well as strengthen their families and communities.

Kelleher reached out to ARC and a number of other local partners, including two Jersey City companies, Hartz Mountain Industries/Joseph Panepinto and the Kushner Real Estate Group, to each contribute to the program. Soon, other partners joined in. Jersey City government provides transportation to training sites for the recruits and the Hudson County School of Technology provides classroom space for critical training in math and reading to prepare recruits for union aptitude tests. Meanwhile, the South Hudson Civic Association is providing in kind office space for the program and oversees its administration.

Project IMPACT is succeeding because its leaders are passionately committed to that goal.

To become eligible to work as an apprentice on a union construction job, it requires passing aptitude and drug tests, and having a driver’s license. Those requirements weed out many applicants. But O’Dea and Kelleher ensure that things are different in Jersey City. They are taking the extra steps to encourage applicants to stay on course to reaching their goal.

For instance, Project IMPACT gives applicants preliminary aptitude tests so they can gauge where the recruits need the most help to pass the union tests. Classes in math and other subject areas are organized under Project IMPACT. For the plumbers test, classes were three nights a week for eight weeks. “The first time Mays took the pre-test, she failed, but she worked and worked and worked and studied,” Kelleher says. “She is so dedicated. She surpassed some of the people who started out with much higher scores than her.”

Mays recalls that when she first took a practice test she got only 45 percent correct; after taking classes she increased her score to 75 percent. “I improved way more than I thought I would,” Mays says. “I’m so proud of myself.”

Kelleher and O’Dea do more than just provide classroom help. They work with the City and Municipal Court to speak with local judges and ask that driving suspensions be lifted and that fines be reduced so that driving licenses can be returned to recruits. This hands-on approach lets each applicant know that his or her effort at making a better life is being supported.

After obtaining a certain test score, or completing a minimum number of hours of classroom training, the recruit is presented with a certificate of completion signed by Kelleher. “It’s like a recommendation or reference letter for them to take to their job interview,” he says, adding that recruits are counseled on how to present themselves and dress for their job interviews with contractors.

Furthermore, Project IMPACT will pay for up to two apprenticeship tests, one drug test, initiation fees of the union, and first year apprenticeship book costs. The maximum amount a recruit can receive is $500.

The results have been phenomenal.

During the first five and a half months of the year, 82 recruits submitted complete applications. Of the 54 recruits that have taken tests, 43 passed at least one test – or 80 percent. Forty-one of those are Jersey City residents and two others are Hudson County veterans. In fact, nine recruits have passed multiple tests during this time period. It is anticipated that by this Fall the program will have exceeded their annual goals.

Joseph Roberson, 28, had worked at a number of odd jobs from warehouses to starting a trucking company. But he has his first child on the way, and badly needed steady work. He went to talk to O’Dea and learned about Project IMPACT.

“Mr. O’Dea and Mr. Kelleher really helped me out,” says Roberson, who wants to be a union plumber. “They kept their word about everything and believed in all of us. They told us we could do it. I’m going to be starting a family and needed to be able to take care of them. This is the best thing in my life right now.”

For the past three months, thanks to Project IMPACT Roberson has worked at F&G Mechanical Corporation. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “The work is not too hard. My co-workers are awesome. They are cool and laid back and show me how to do things the right way.”

Kelleher acknowledges that some recruits come from difficult upbringings, and may have had run-ins with the law. But that isn’t held against them.

“We are giving them every chance to be successful,” Kelleher says. “The only way they don’t succeed is if they don’t make the effort.”

The HIT’s Nixon says that Kelleher and O’Dea “made a connection” with the young people looking for opportunities.

“HIT felt that it was important to support this effort,” Nixon says. “We are seeing that young people in Jersey City are working hard to develop careers. A career in the union construction labor force offers family-supporting wages and benefits long term - it is not just a job. This program will not only strengthen the prospects of these young individuals, but will strengthen the economic and social fabric of Jersey City.”

Nixon maintains that Project IMPACT can be replicated throughout New Jersey and in other cities and states around the nation.

“This partnership between the City of Jersey City, Hudson County Building and Construction Trades and ARC, is a powerful partnership that is working to bring a number of men and woman of color into the building and construction trades,” she says. “We are encouraged by the progress that we have seen so far and we look forward to continuing to work with the Hudson County Building Trades and the City of Jersey City.”