With infrastructure in the news, it’s a good time to look at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Apprenticeship Readiness Program. It hires from nearby communities for the airport’s multi-billion-dollar construction program, employing students from diverse backgrounds and training them in the building trades.
Janette Cortez, who has two children, is one of the apprentices. Three years ago, she rose each day before dawn to commute to Los Angeles Southwest College, where she was enrolled in the HireLAX apprentice program that provides training to support the airport construction effort.
Cortez was among 26 people in the eight-week program’s first graduating class. Eight out of 10 went on to enter registered apprenticeship programs and launch construction careers they would not have gotten otherwise.
Some had never graduated from high school; for others, college was a distant dream. Still others had spent years mired in the legal system. But through the program, these students received a second chance at a rewarding career. Cortez’s current pay is more than $35 an hour, not counting the substantial health and retirement fund benefits that go with the salary.
Although the program paused in 2020 due to COVID-19, it resumed in January with new graduates in March. Since it began, HireLAX has had 213 graduates. Nine out of 10 were persons of color; nearly one in four were women—better than the average for all Apprenticeship Readiness Programs, where 78% of graduates are persons of color and 17% are women.
Parsons Corp. and Los Angeles Southwest College run the program on behalf of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX and Van Nuys airports in California. Working alongside national and regional building trades unions, the groups recently inked a 10-year extension to the project labor agreement governing the airport’s construction program, and HireLAX is part of it.
Other local government officials, including the Board of Airport Commissioners and city Mayor Eric Garcetti, have contributed to program success. The building trades operate more than 175 Apprenticeship Readiness Programs across the country, and they are successful. But only a handful of very large public works projects using this model are comparable in size and results to HireLAX.
There are many good reasons why the U.S. needs an infrastructure bill. If the federal government can get one passed, the Biden administration has an excellent opportunity to advance the importance of construction training.
Directing funds to repair and upgrade infrastructure will improve quality of life for all Americans, but it also boosts employment through apprenticeship training. The building trades in modern America have long been a path to the middle class, and construction apprentice training provides more than a middle-class income. The jobs are a path out of endless financial worry. They provide resources for children, downpayments on fulfilling futures and a handhold on the American dream that for many has seemed out of reach.
How does that look close up?
Prior to HireLAX, Cortez characterized her financial situation as “a struggle” and her income was much lower. Now, while shopping for groceries, she no longer must decide between “juice or milk” for her children—she can afford both. Because of HireLAX, Cortez achieved a pair of long-sought goals—a good career and a clear path to long-term success and greater financial security.
After graduating from the program, she started her career as a union trainee at Morrow Meadows, a major LAX electrical contractor. Through hard work and perseverance, she discovered self-confidence, personal empowerment and a better future for her and her family. Cortez now is in her third and final year as an electrical apprentice, on the cusp of becoming a journeywoman electrician. She continues her career path as a proud member of IBEW Local 11, working evenings on an LAX construction project.
We know the success of Cortez and HireLAX can be replicated elsewhere. The future of our nation’s infrastructure depends on it.
Chuck Harrington is CEO of Parsons Corp. and Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions. Learn more about the HireLAX Apprenticeship Readiness Program at https://www.lawa.org/lawa-employment/lawa-hirelax/hirelax.