Advanced Skills Workforce Center: “Diversity within the trade”

St. LOUIS – Earlier this year the Painters’ District Council 58 helped to establish the Advanced Skills Workforce Center (ASWC), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization committed to providing essential training and related support to working class youth, particularly youth of color, who want to explore a career in the painting industry.

The ASWC “provides the tools, the discipline and a pathway out of poverty for folks eager for the opportunity to better their lives,” Steve Wayland, the director of business development at Painters’ DC58 told the People’s World.

Twenty-five participants have completed the unpaid fourteen week program so far. Twelve additional participants are in the current class. The program has three sessions a year; each session is five days a week, eight hours a day.

“We are trying to promote diversity within the trade,” Wayland continued. A majority of the ASWC participants are young African American men.

Participants learn painting and drywall skills and essential soft skills, including how to write a resume’, dressing appropriately during contractor interviews, showing up to job-sites on-time prepared and ready to work, etc. – all of which increase participants likelihood of building a career in the industry. Participants also receive the following industry recognized certifications: OSHA 10, First Aid, CPR, Scaffold and Lift. OSHA 10 is a ten hour department of labor construction training program that provides entry level general awareness of health and safety regulations, while Scaffold and Lift, or scissor lift, familiarizes participants with mobile scaffolds, operating procedures, hazards, maintaining and disassembling.

Graduates of the ASWC program join the Painters’ union as apprentices once placed with contractors and begin making between $13 and $14 an-hour, about double the current St. Louis minimum wage of $7.65. They also receive annual pay raises and benefits.

Ninety percent of ASCW program graduates have been placed with contractors.

Joshua Washington is one of those graduates. “The ASWC program was the best opportunity I had, an opportunity to get my life together.”

Washington, who used to work part-time with a moving company making $10 an-hour, is now working with a union contractor making $13.38, and is expecting a pay raise to $19 an-hour next year.

“This is an opportunity to learn a trade and make a living wage,” Washington added.

The ASWC actively works to build relationships with community organizations, too. The current program is housed through a partnership with the Demetrious Johnson CharitableFoundation, a north-side non-profit founded in 1992 to provide inner city youth with mentoring, financial literacy, vocational / tutorial and scholastic assistance.

Additionally, the ASWC has partnered with the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society(WES), a community-labor worker-education organization, to identify potential participants from south-side St. Louis Aldermanic Wards 9, 15 and 20.

“People want good paying union jobs with benefits,” Wayland said. “We work with community groups, like the Workers’ Education Society, to identify folks from the neighborhood, get them the training they need and then place them on a career path out of poverty.”

Progressive Alderwomen Megan Green (ward 15) and Cara Spencer (ward 20) are meeting with leaders from the Painters’ and WES to begin discussions regarding identifying participants from their wards.

“Word just keeps spreading,” Wayland continued. “In fact, some of our participants have left similar paid programs to come to ours, an unpaid program. They now we are serious about getting folks the skills they need and then getting them placed with contractors.”

As a result of this project, Painters’District Councils from across the country are looking to partner with community groups in their Districts and explore more non-traditional ways of organizing like in St. Louis.

“The success of our program and placement is higher than any other program around, as a single trade,” Wayland concluded.

“This is such an exciting project, a wonderful opportunity to make a real change in people’s lives,” Don Giljum, secretary-treasurer of the Workers’ Education Society told the World.

Giljum, retired business manager for the Operating Engineers’ International Union Local 148, added, “We are honored to be a part of this program. We are honored to help end the cycle of poverty faced by so many folks in the community, especially people of color. This program has the potential to dramatically change people’s lives for the better.”

“This project can also act as a model for other labor-community partnerships across the country. This is what we have to do to rebuild the labor movement while grounding it within the community,” Giljum concluded.

Participants also get help completing their GED or high school diploma, while giving back to the community by volunteering.

“Employment is a struggle we all face collectively,” Wayland added. “Employment, raising the minimum wage, the fight against so-called ‘right-to-work’ – all of these struggles are connected. This is a collective effort between community and union partners. And it’s succeeding.”

“The program taught me how to be a professional,” Washington concluded. “This is a profession. This is a career. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” 

Photo: Tony Pecinovsky/PW


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.