Many of our communities in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland were established because of good old fashioned blue collar jobs — solid, well-paying jobs in manufacturing, construction and the trades.
But by the 21st Century, high school training in the trades, which often led to apprenticeship programs after graduation, had largely disappeared, and educated trade workers declined along with it. Today, conversations about degree-granting apprenticeships — in which a person learns a trade by working alongside a journeyman and by taking accompanying classes in fields ranging from plumbing to cabinet making — are practically non-existent. This void has contributed to the decline of once thriving neighborhoods, which now have upwards of 50 percent of residents living in poverty, no fresh produce in sight and dilapidated housing stock.
Several large state projects — including Base Realignment and Closure-led expansions at Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the new Johns Hopkins Hospital — have created wealth for some and missed opportunities for others, namely the apprentices who never got to work on them. Right now the development conversation in Maryland is centered around building the State Center, the Red Line, the Purple Line and the MGM Casino at National Harbor, to name a few of the efforts underway. These projects represent opportunities we can't let pass by again.
Many of these projects are funded by taxpayer dollars and are protected by prevailing wage laws, which ensure a good wage, affordable health care and a respectable retirement for those who work on the projects. And there are a lot of contractors and sub-contractors who value having the opportunity to work on them. These employers have a responsibility to invest in academic apprenticeship programs, which could put state residents to work on state-funded public works projects and pay the apprentices' tuition at the same time, making it more likely they complete their degrees.
In 2010 apprentices who dropped out of their apprenticeship programs but remained in the industry accrued an average yearly wage of $20,915; apprentices who completed their apprenticeship programs earned a salary of $45,904 — a difference of $25,000 per year. This has a significant impact on our communities and the state of Maryland.
We, the authors of this piece, were among the lucky ones. We had the opportunity to attend four- or five-year apprenticeship programs because of labor-management agreements with our employers. Our tuition was paid, along with our wages for work done on site. This happened whether we were working on a prevailing wage project funded by state dollars or a Chick-fil-A funded by private dollars. This happened because of the shoulders we stand on: workers who believed in the American dream and management who valued an educated workforce.
There are employer associations that provide these opportunities to some apprentices. But true success will require expanding those kinds of opportunities to as many young men and women as possible. This is why we can no longer conduct business as usual. We must continuously look for opportunities to be creative, and we must demand effective opportunities to build our communities, municipalities and our great state of Maryland.
The task in front of us is daunting, but there is hope for funding apprenticeship programs. The first step is to pay attention to those state funded public works projects that fall under the purview of prevailing wage laws and to ensure that contractors and sub-contractors managing such projects are required to fully fund apprenticeship programs for apprentices working on those projects. With this solution we have the ability to improve graduation rates for apprentices who are unable to pay for their apprenticeship programs. With this solution we have the opportunity to create an educated workforce that can infuse money into neighborhoods with food deserts and into the local economy, and — most of all — reduce the poverty rate in those communities where almost one out of two families live in poverty.
For us, we enjoyed an extraordinary opportunity. We completed our apprenticeship programs and now live successful lives. But we recognize that the true measure of success isn't just enjoying the fruits of a great opportunity. The true measure of success is turning around and seeing how many people we can bring along with us.
Cory McCray is a delegate in the 45th Legislative District representing Northeast and East Baltimore City; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Kevin Cosby is the president of A/C Power Inc.; email: email@example.com. Gary Griffin is the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.