Apr 1, 2022 - News

Aspiring masons wanted to diversify unions in Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary's Masonry Academy students going over designs. Photo courtesy of Liz Trumbull 

Tynerra Brown knew masonry was her ideal field the first day she was given a chisel and a hammer.

  • "I like building things and then coming back and showing my kids, 'Look, Mommy helped stabilize this building' or 'Mommy helped build this wall,' Brown tells Axios. "It makes me proud."

Brown is one of the seven participants who graduated from Eastern State Penitentiary's training academy for aspiring masons that launched last summer.

  • And now the historic site is recruiting for its second round.

State of play: ESP started the Masonry Academy as a way to help Philadelphians who are underrepresented in the building trades — such as formerly incarcerated individuals, women and people of color — find long-term careers in the industry.

  • Participants don't need any prior experience to take part in the paid, hands-on training program.

Why it matters: Philadelphia's building and construction trade unions have historically lacked diversity.

Between the lines: Only one of the city's building trade unions, Local 542, reports out demographic data like gender and racial makeup.

  • But a 2010 census revealed that white people made up 80% of structural iron and steelworkers, 77% of sheet metal workers and 74% of carpet, floor and tile installers.

Brown acknowledges there aren't a lot of women, especially Black women like her, working on these sites.

  • "At first it was intimidating, and some are surprised to see a woman out there," Brown says. "But now I go out there knowing I can do the same work [men] do."

How it works: This year, 10 participants will be chosen and paid $15 an hour to complete the four-week program, which focuses on career development taught by retired trade workers.

  • They'll also complete three restoration projects at Eastern State Penitentiary. This year's crew with repaint masonry walls, pour a concrete sidewalk and repave a cobblestone sidewalk.
  • Afterward, crew members can apply for a fellowship with four more weeks of hands-on training at various job sites with local contractors. If successful, they could be considered for full-time employment or a union apprenticeship.

Zoom in: Out of the seven who completed the program last year, three joined unions, including Brown.

  • To date, only two are currently in union apprenticeships, according to Liz Trumbull, an associate director at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

What they're saying: "Philadelphia is a minority majority city so that's a focus, but we're also focusing on returning citizens who may have certain barriers to employment," Aiisha Herring-Miller, deputy director for diverse business and workforce development at the city's Rebuild program, tells Axios.

Of note: The program is run in collaboration with the city's Rebuild program, the International Masonry Institute, and PowerCorps PHL, an Americorps program that provides career education and paid work experiences.

How to apply: The deadline to apply is April 18. Those interested can submit applications at Eastern State Penitentiary's website.

  • Applicants who don't have computer access can pick up and submit paper applications at ESP.
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