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On Beatties Ford Road, a grassroots trade school needs tech support

Construction is booming in Charlotte, which is good news for general contractors and better news for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, and other trade specialists. The bad news: there’s not enough labor, and 75 percent of contractors can’t find the workers they need.

A community leader in West Charlotte is translating that shortage into opportunities for African American men who are unemployed, underemployed, or re-entering the community after incarceration. The challenge is that she needs more support and technology.

Frances Hall is a certified instructor in metal framing, masonry, and drywall, with more than 20 years of construction experience. She founded the Beatties Ford Road Vocational Trade Center in 2016, housed in a facility that has offered medical, mental health, and substance abuse services for decades. The school now provides certified programs in general construction, electrical, HVAC, carpentry, masonry, metal framing, drywall, blueprints, estimating, fiber optics, and construction project management. More than 200 African American men have registered for classes in the center.

“We have a dual purpose,” Hall said recently. “Economically we help those minority contractors to teach their trades and pass that trade on to a new generation and build their companies, and we specifically target black men and allow them the opportunity to learn a trade that can lead to a career.”

The center follows curriculum developed by the National Center of Construction Education and Research, developed by engineers, contractors and architects, and taught by minority contractors with at least 20 years of experience. Course duration ranges from eight days (fiber optics) to six months (core general construction), and students earn an apprentice certificate. Courses are taught in the center and on job sites.

The center places vocational resources close to people in the Beatties Ford Road area, who are often unable to commute to, or afford, programs at Central Piedmont Community College, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, the Urban League of Central Carolinas, or York Technical College in Rock Hill, S.C. Much of the work is technology dependent, because construction relies on online resources. One goal is the creation of a computer lab to teach blueprint reading and project cost estimating with software. Hall is looking for support to equip the lab with workstations, laptops, tablets, and software. The center’s clients lack computers at home, and the digital skills needed to compete in the marketplace.

In April 2018, the center completed a three-month Accelerator program with Digital Charlotte, focused on basic online and computing skills. At the conclusion, nine community members received certification and refurbished laptop computers.

“Right now all blueprints are delivered online, and there are different types of software that can be used for estimating, so it’s very important that our students understand how to use the internet to gather information, how to find construction projects online, how to seek out job offerings,” Hall said. “We have at least two information technology instructors who will be coming here specifically to teach our students how to use cost estimation software for construction projects.

“We have been dynamically affecting the lives of young men who are involved with the court system, young men who came here with no high school diplomas or no trades, no way of entering the job market because they had no skills,” Hall said. “The unfortunate thing is that we have no support. No political support, and basically what we do here is done out of the pockets of the instructors and myself. The students who come through the door are unable to pay, because they’re the ones coming from the zip codes of young people who have been left behind and thrown away in this city.

“Right now we’re developing relationships with all of the prime electrical companies, because you’ve got to understand that we are in a city where there’s an extreme deficit for skilled laborers in the construction industry. All across the board, every field, there’s a deficit. People like myself, I was in construction for 21 years — I’m a metal framer, drywaller, and brick mason —  but we’re dying out. We’re aging out, and so we don’t have the adequate resources in this city from years ago that should have been reaching the next generation.

“We’re trying to do with whatever resources we have, whatever resources we can bring in the door, to take that next generation and say, ‘learn this trade, and it can open a door for a career for you.’ Not to make minimum wage, not $11 an hour, but we’re looking at salaries of $15, $18, more than $20 an hour as an apprentice. Each one of our students receives an apprentice certificate that is recognized throughout the United States and abroad.”

Hall is deeply concerned about Charlotte’s response to the studies indicating the city’s lack of progress on economic mobility. A 2014 study, created by the U.S. Department of Treasury and several leading universities, ranked Charlotte last among 50 cities in upward mobility. Subsequent research documented obstacles faced by African American men, especially in cities like Charlotte.

“We fully understand the poverty issue and the barriers that poverty brings for our students and ourselves,” Hall said. “We relate to our students. We understand the barriers and we try to help our students win around those barriers.”

From Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement Statistics

General construction and electrical permit applications in Mecklenburg County increased 17 percent during the two-year period between 2016 and 2018. Residential construction permit applications increased 7 percent in the same period.