Construction: While residents are trained, out-of-town workers get the jobs

by Joe Debro

Construction requires training, but most workers are trained on the job. To keep poor people, especially Black people, out of construction, the city promises them jobs if they enroll in training programs, then gives the real jobs to out-of-town workers.The powerless are always at the mercy of the powerful. In San Francisco, voters would not knowingly allow the poor to be pushed out of the city. Those who have the votes, but not the information, often buy the explanation that gentrification is an economic issue. It is an economic issue but not the reason that causes the community of the poor to be displaced.

Development is a cash cow. It generates enough money to pay off those in charge. Beyond that, it provides wealth to developers’ friends. Most people of good will are busy with the issues in their lives. They don’t have the time to study the issues and to make informed judgments.

Those in charge and their allies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help their crony win an election to a job that pays only a few hundred thousands dollars a year. Where is the logic in that? Why would a person spend $50 million to win a job that pays less than $300,000 per year? Why do some people invest heavily in such a seemingly poor business proposition?

These investors are people who are seeking a return on investment (ROI).

Those who invest in such campaigns expect to be and are rewarded. The elected ones and the people they appoint control the process of distributing tax dollars. There are only two requirements for the distribution of our tax dollars: 1) That most of the expended tax dollars must go to those who invested in the winning candidate. 2) That the distribution of tax dollars must appear to be fair and legal.

The distribution of our tax dollars is neither fair nor just. It does however have the appearance of being both.

Poor people play a role in this Kabuki. They are used to obfuscate. The man in charge supports those who appear to help the community of the poor, the CBOs (community based organizations). They have two masters: the people they are in place to help and the puppet master who pulls the strings.

Almost none of the programs have the capacity to empower the community of the poor. If they do, they are closed down. Most programs are designed to coopt the well educated, the dedicated and the committed. These programs provide well-paid jobs for those who run them. They have defined goals that are beyond the reach of most of the people enrolled in such programs.

The best example is the pre-apprenticeship program. When there was a construction boom, young unemployed people on the streets of San Francisco were being enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs. They were not paid. They could not work in construction during this time. They were effectively diverted from trying to work in construction.

Rather than providing them employment, the city employed a deferred dream. The dream was that one day the unemployed person might be qualified to get that promised job.

Many, not all, unions brought in skilled workers from other jurisdictions and gave them temporary union cards. Some of these travelers were paid bonuses. These workers were doing work that our unemployed should have been training on the job to do.

Our city government paid for such anti local employment practices. Our young men and women watched while out of town strangers worked on projects paid for by our taxpayers.

The pre-apprenticeships produced very few union members. The cost to local government for those who did obtain union cards is estimated by the National Association of Minority Contractors to be in excess of $300,000 per union card.

Most of the cost was incurred in administering this program. Actual apprentices are paid out of contract costs. The administrative cost is paid to people who, but for these salaries, might be agitating for real change.

Some unions have sold the public on the idea that the only way to earn a union card is through the apprenticeship route. That is not true. It is the best training. Most union members obtain their cards by methods other than apprenticeships. Most union members qualified for their cards after nonunion companies trained them on the job. OJT (on-the-job training) is not the preferred method of training. OJT is the usual method of training.

An empowered poor community would not have allowed any union to bring in out-of-state workers to do work that the unemployed should be doing. An empowered poor community would not allow the San Francisco public schools to not educate all of its children. An empowered community of the poor would not allow any developer to come into this city and make hollow promises. An empowered poor community would demand that a bonded solution to gentrification be a part of any DDA (distribution and development agreement between the city and a developer).

Those who need the status quo will not empower poor communities. They will use city and county resources to divide and confuse. Their method is to throw crumbs upon the waters and watch those who cannot swim drown. My third and final article in this series will name the villain and suggest a solution.

Joe DebroJoe Debro is co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, a general engineering contractor and a bio-chemical engineer. He can be reached at