Three years ago, authorities in Flint, Michigan switched drinking water sources, ultimately causing high amounts of lead to seep into its water supply. Today, the city is still recovering from this public health crisis. The NIEHS Environmental Career Working Training Program (ECWTP) is helping affected residents obtain a path to employment and skills to repair the broken water system.
Like others in Flint, Gulf War veteran Anthony Jones had been struggling to find work. When the drinking water crisis hit, Jones volunteered for the Michigan National Guard, where he learned of ECWTP and the workforce development program GST Michigan Works! Thanks to training he received through the program, Jones is now an apprentice plumber, helping to replace Flint’s aging residential water service with safer pipes.
Preparing for environmental careers
ECWTP strives to prepare low-income residents who are unemployed, underemployed, or dislocated workers for entrance into construction trades apprentice programs. Through this program, more than 10,000 people have been trained in more than 30 communities across the country.
In Michigan, ECWTP works with a network of groups coordinated by CPWR — The Center for Construction Research and Training, including GST Michigan Works! and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. They provide opportunities for Flint residents to enroll in a local Environmental Career Worker Training program.
“Flint sees very high unemployment, coupled with a desperate need for skilled workers to rehabilitate the water system,” said CPWR Executive Director Chris Trahan Cain. “We knew right away that the ECWTP model would be a perfect match for Flint.”
So CPWR and its collaborators proposed to train 25 workers in Flint. “There was no shortage of candidates, given that this city has been hard-hit by the decline in manufacturing jobs,” said Cain.
Trainees learn diverse skills
Shortly after getting involved in the Flint response, Jones enrolled in the first ECWTP class that GST Michigan Works! coordinated. He and his fellow students began a 4-week training program in the summer of 2016 that included life skills training, introductions to different construction trades, and training on environmental hazards and construction safety. Eight of the ten graduates entered construction apprenticeship programs.
Union construction apprenticeship programs go beyond skills training. Participants are placed in jobs with union contractors, ensuring a rising pay scale as they develop their craft skills during 4 years of training, and better job security throughout their career.
Jobs provide invaluable benefits
Jones is just one of more than 70 percent of trainees who have found employment after completing the program, according to ECWTP nationwide evaluations. Almost a year after receiving his training, Jones is a member of the United Association Local 370 Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, & Service Techs.
He worked on the new Genesee County Water Treatment Plant and also landed a job with Goyette Mechanical, a contractor playing a key role in replacing Flint’s damaged water service lines.
As Jones attests, the opportunity has also provided intangible benefits. “The best part about all of this is that I was invited by my eight-year-old son to visit his classroom, where he presented me with an award,” Jones told GST Michigan Works! “It says ‘Thanks Dad, for making our water safe.’ That’s what means the most to me.”
(Clayton Sinyai, Ph.D., is CPWR’s communication research manager. Steve Surtees directs CPWR’s Environmental Careers Worker Training. Tara Failey is a communication specialist with MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)