After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps years ago, I was having great difficulty finding meaningful employment which, in turn, led me to the streets and an environment of trouble.

My saving grace was a referral I received to the ironworkers apprenticeship program in Washington, D.C. As a young African American male, having dedicated and experienced instructors not only teaching me but mentoring me helped to completely transform my life. After completing my training, I went on to become a journeyman ironworker, and then I progressed to foreman, superintendent, business agent for my local union, a building trades lobbyist before the Maryland General Assembly, and now Executive Director for CHOICE — the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment.


Stories similar to mine are being repeated every day all across the United States where building trades unions and local community coalitions are operating "apprenticeship-readiness" programs in more than 75 metropolitan areas. These programs are designed to provide opportunities for candidates from diverse backgrounds — especially urban youth, communities of color, women and our nation's military veterans — to gain the general knowledge that will prepare them for entry into a formal skilled craft apprenticeship training program. Participants earn while they learn, at no cost to them, a more inviting alternative than college where today roughly 70 percent of graduates are saddled with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt.

CHOICE, comprised of 28 local building trades unions, is planning to launch a similar apprenticeship-readiness program for the Baltimore area sometime before the end of this year. We are already working to build partnerships with businesses, community organizations, lawmakers and public officials to leverage publicly-funded construction investments with the private sector investments made by our unions and our signatory contractors in apprenticeship training and education.

This business model has proven successful in major metropolitan areas in every region of the nation, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Seattle and Los Angeles, to name just a few. We believe this is a model that can, and will, work in Baltimore as well, perhaps through the 21st Century School Buildings Program, for example.

Urban unrest is a problem that has plagued policymakers for decades. At its core, the solution to it lies in the creation of not just "jobs" but meaningful economic opportunities that lead to a fulfilling career and a sense of self-worth. The apprenticeship business model creates structured pathways for historically disadvantaged communities to access training opportunities that will provide them with a marketable set of skills that will last a lifetime and lead to a stable existence in the middle class.

That, in turn, helps the region. In a 2009 report titled, Training Tomorrow's Workforce, the Center for American Progress concluded that "sound investments in skills today are likely to yield high returns in the form of added earnings and improved productivity tomorrow and well into the future. If directed at improving qualifications for middle-skill jobs, enhanced training can reduce inequality while promoting economic growth."

The idea of providing education and training opportunities for urban residents is very well suited to the economic and social goals and objectives articulated by both Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Even though the governor is a Republican and the mayor is a Democrat, they both have a desire to address the economic and social issues that are at the heart of today's urban unrest, including efforts to provide greater career training opportunities.

We would hope that they would come out in strong support of CHOICE for Baltimore residents.

Mark Coles is the Executive Director of the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment; his email is Mcoles@choiceworks.org.