Angelle Bergeron
Jessie Aguillard, heavy equipment instructor

If the students in attendance at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, La., are a typical sample, the I’M GREAT training program has succeeded in doing what the industry has been trying to do for years. Women and men of all ages, skin color and background are enrolled in the Gulf Coast Workforce Development Initiative four-week, pre-apprenticeship training. Through the end of September 2007, GREAT had trained 11,078 new recruits to the construction industry, and 3,339 are currently enrolled for upcoming training, says Tim Horst, program manager.

Get Rewarded for Education & Advancement Training (GREAT) has been advertised on billboards, bus stop signs and radio stations throughout the Hurricane Katrina-affected Gulf Coast.  “They call the toll free number, talk to somebody at the call center, who gets their information, where they live and then refers them to the appropriate location in each state,” Horst says. If you haven’t been to school in a while, no problem. “Counseling is part of the enrollment process,” Horst says. Students are required to have a minimum of 8th grade reading and math skills, but refresher tutoring is available at most locations. “A lot of people get tripped up on fractions and need refreshers,” Horst says. “They can take remedial courses for free or near free.”

The four-week, free training is replete with safety instruction, as well as classroom and hands-on introduction to four crafts. The price, compressed time frame, remedial support and comprehensive training make the program appealing to a broader audience than the typical crafts training programs, says Delano Cline, coordinator for the program at LTC.  Graduates are also invited to attend job fairs, where eager employers scout new recruits.

Johnella Grayer joined the program because she wants to get a commercial builders license. “You need to know about construction in order to pass the test,” Grayer says.  “If you are going to be over something, you need to know about materials, methods and labor or people will get over on you.”

“We have already had so many graduates go into regular entry level positions that we are getting a higher percentage to opt for follow-up level 1 training in a particular craft,” Horst says. The four-week schedule is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Night classes are available, but training takes eight or nine weeks. “Baton Rouge is by far the biggest trainer now,” says Horst, of the seven sites in the city turning out GREAT graduates. “Since the hurricane, there’s been a significant investment in the Baton Rouge area and growth in the city proper and industrial sector,” Horst says.

Ibrahim Ben Kabba, a refugee from Liberia, West Africa, is learning to be a heavy equipment operator. He arrived in Baton Rouge March 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, with no real marketable skills. “In Africa, I worked in the diamond mines,” Ben Kabba says. “The only skill I had was driving.” After escaping a civil war that was not at all civil (“Life in Africa was hell,” he says.), Ben Kabba worked briefly for a tarpaulin company. “Since I didn’t know what I was doing, they laid me off,” he says.

Then he worked as a dishwasher, got a job mixing spices for a packaging company – basically, all labor jobs with no skills. “I saw an ad on TV about construction training free of charge, and I thought, that’s the job for me,” Ben Kabba says. Asked if there were similar opportunities for training in Africa, “Hell no!” was his immediate response. “This is a great opportunity for me in this country. We are so blessed,” he says. “We have great instructors. They teach us skills and safety. What they are doing here is good for me and the country as a whole. In two weeks, I can operate all of these machines. I owe a lot to the American people. I have the skills to get a job and pay them back. God Bless America.”

Wilford “Lil Will” McKneely heard about the program through a couple of friends. Previously a pipe fitter helper, McKneely wanted advanced training to establish a career. “I wanted to learn heavy equipment,” he says. “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

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    Faces of Construction

    Jeff Admon, a New Orleanian, commutes to Baton Rouge for the training. A project manager for NOLA Steel, a company the builds steel frame buildings, Admon took a leave of work to participate in the GREAT training. “Our company is expanding, doing larger projects with levee work, so I need to learn how to operate equipment just in case we can’t find heavy equipment operators,” he says. Admon wishes the training were offered closer to home so he didn’t have to make the 200-mile round trip. However, in spite of the $35 a day he spends in gas and the long hours, he arrives at school every morning with a smile on his face. “My instructors are first rate,” he says. “You can’t buy training like this. The more people who hear about this, the better.”

    Admon is hoping GREAT will fill the void in skilled labor in New Orleans. “Ever since this hurricane, it is very hard to find skilled labor,” he says. “People in Louisiana are hard workers. Even immigrant labor is very hard working. We just need more training.”

    Even the instructors are excited about the GREAT program. Richie Dodge and Jessie Aguillard believe the training is invaluable to the industry. Both are hook hands (crane operators) by trade, and heavy equipment instructors at LTC. “When they leave here, they are better operators than many I’ve seen in the field,” Aguillard says. “Often in the field you have people there who are just there and kin folks or someone stuck them on the job.”

    Dodge agreed that often on an active work site, someone will be recruited to perform duties in which he or she has no certified training. “Heavy equipment operating instruction is about 80-90% hands-on,” Dodge says. “In this course, they learn safety, book knowledge, trouble shooting maintenance of the equipment and hands-on experience. In a plant, somebody may just stick them on a piece of equipment and say, work this.”

    The two instructors are excited that GREAT has been successfully attracting older students and women. “The female operators are a lot better,” Aguillard says. “They are detail oriented, and use a lot more finesse. Equipment operators require a lot of finesse. It’s not just ramming and jamming.”

    GREAT offers a viable option for adults wanting to switch from dead-end jobs to careers, Dodge says. Older students, 25 and up, tend to make better students than kids right out of high school. “They are more responsible, more mature, and more eager to learn. They want to prove themselves,” Dodge says.

    It takes a certain type of personality to be a pipe fitter, but GREAT is attracting some of those as well, says Lee Knight, pipe fitting instructor. “You’ve got to have fire in your tank,” Knight says. “It takes somebody with initiative, who is not afraid of work to be a pipe fitter or welder.”

    Because so much math is involved in pipe fitting, Knight spends about half of his instruction time in the classroom, he says. “I teach them how to read the blueprints, and all the mathematical formulas,” Knight says. “A lot of them have been out of school a few years, but I try to get them to do most of it on their own. It draws them in. And when they make a mistake, I like that because when I correct them, they really get it and don’t make that mistake again.”