by Kim Krisberg

“To know you participated in building something in your city — it’s just an experience, you know?”

Those are words from Austin, Texas, native Christopher McDavid, 22, a graduate of the city’s newly established Construction Career Center. During his time at the center, McDavid got certified in flagger safety (flaggers direct the safe passage of traffic through construction areas), first aid and CPR, and basic concrete work and received his OSHA 10 certification, which he said “has opened my eyes to actually see the things that can be harmful to me.”

Now, McDavid is looking for construction work in Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. During our conversation, he sounds hopeful that his new skills and the career center staff will not only help him find good employment, but a job that pays a living wage. That’s because the Construction Career Center, a project of the Labors’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), is part of a local movement to ensure that construction workers get their fair share of Austin’s booming development. In fact, McDavid was one of about a dozen Construction Career Center students who recently gathered at Austin’s Workers Defense Project to celebrate a new local requirement that businesses looking for big tax breaks to move into Austin and surrounding Travis County agree to pay all workers a living wage (more on that victory here).

McDavid said he’s been working construction in Austin for a few years and the pay can be dismal, but “this program is really trying to help us get a living wage.”

“This is my career, this is what I want to do,” McDavid told me. “And I feel like we really have someone to talk for us now — we actually have people who can make things happen.”

Austin’s Construction Career Center first began offering classes in fall 2012 and is one of 70 such LiUNA training centers nationwide. Every year, the centers train about 150,000 workers in a broad spectrum of construction skills and safety. But what makes the Austin center unique is that it’s not just open to LiUNA members, “we’re opening up our doors to the community,” said Aaron Chappell, campaign director with LiUNA, noting that Austin has a very small union base to begin with. The center is partnering with local community groups, such as the Workers Defense Project, to get more people into training and then place them into good jobs.

Addressing Austin problems

“There are real safety and quality of work concerns in Austin,” Chappell told me. “This helps put them on a path to go up in the industry…We’re targeting folks who have been on the bottom of the ladder in construction. Giving them these skills will help justify living wages, the kind of wages we need to see in this community and that people can actually afford to live on.”

Indeed, research has found that construction workers in Austin get a very raw deal. According to a 2009 study from the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, construction wages in Texas lag behind other states by about $2 to $3 per hour, even though just in Austin, the construction industry grew by more than 200 percent from 1990 to 2007. Nearly half of Austin construction workers report they live below the poverty line and say they don’t make enough to properly support their families. In addition, construction workers in Texas work alongside a dire safety record — the state is home to the worst construction worker fatality rate in the nation.

The Austin Construction Career Center, however, is part of a broader movement to change that. Chappell said that because the center is part of a national network, the “sky’s the limit in what we’re able to offer.” For the most part, the center’s free classes, which are offered in English and Spanish, zero in on the general construction and basic skills needed to get into the industry as well as OSHA safety training — “skills needed to be productive on a construction site and not get hurt,” Chappell said. However, he said one of the center’s goals is to be responsive to community needs and the needs of companies committed to providing sustainable, safe, good-paying jobs.

“Right now, we have a mix of folks new to construction and folks who have been working in the industry,” Chappell said. “Overall, there’s seems to be a real lack of training all together…and very few employers provide it for less-skilled laborers.”

Ron Dauphin, training director and administrator for the Southwest Laborers’ Training and Apprenticeship Fund, which provides training for all the LiUNA training programs, told me that instructors in Austin are reporting that “everything we’ve brought to (students) on the OSHA side…it was all new to everybody.” However, he said that’s not just an Austin issue — it can be typical for nonunionized workers.

“Nonunion (workers) never seem to get touched by OSHA,” Dauphin said. “You can have people that have worked in construction for years and never even heard of OSHA.”

Dauphin said such situations are a failure on the employer’s part, but also a failure of government enforcement — “because OSHA is the law, it’s not optional, it’s mandatory.”

“(OSHA training) is sometimes looked upon as a major cost to employers, but in reality, providing safety training saves employers money,” he said.

Dauphin’s instructors not only teach Austin workers how to stay safe on the worksite, but how to access OSHA to anonymously report unsafe working conditions. Chappell said students at the Austin center can take training to receive both OSHA 10 and 30 certifications, which educate workers in the basics of occupational health and safety in the construction field, including hazards identification and injury prevention.

So far, the Austin Construction Career Center has trained about 40 local residents and it sounds like it’s just getting started.

“We’re actively out meeting with companies about hiring workers from the center,” Chappell said. “Some are frightened by the union thing, but we’re trying to show that investing in workers is good for business too. We’re going to keep up the fight for good working standards in Austin.”

Austin native Abraham Luna, 44, told me he’s optimistic about his future in the construction field. He used to work in construction, but left the field and is now hoping to break back in with the help of the Construction Career Center. During his time at the center, he received training in general construction, flagger safety, concrete work, OSHA safety and more. He said the “classes have really help me a lot, especially in safety.” Luna is now looking for work and feels hopeful that he can make a living wage in a field he enjoys.

“I like doing hard work,” he said. “When you build (something), you feel proud about it.”

To learn more about the new Construction Career Center, visit www.cccaus.org.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.