The latest National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) High School celebrated careers in construction with a student-centric career fair, and newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia was present as the event unfolded.
Shortly after the arrival of students from the Academy of Construction and Design (ACAD) at IDEA Public Charter School and Phelps ACE, Scalia entered the gymnasium with his team of staff and security. Beth Moore, director of Foundation Programs for the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation (DCSCTF), which sponsored the event, was among those to greet the secretary upon his arrival. She told Scalia about the student-built tiny house, part of the curricula of the skilled trades training program housed at IDEA, while the secretary took the meeting as an opportunity to learn about the specialized career and technical education (CTE) programs and the NAW event.
“We offer a carpentry pathway,” Moore said, prompting Scalia to ask, “Is there a shop on-site?” “We would love for you to visit the labs here or at IDEA,” she responded.
The learning opportunity continued with Phelps JROTC providing a guided tour of the training partner booths, with the District Wharf among the first stops. This Southwest redevelopment project is a mix of housing, retail, public and cultural spaces that retains the city’s historic fish market.
Elinor Bacon, president of E.R. Bacon Development, said Scalia was “very interested” in the upcoming houseboat project that they are teaming with DCSCTF and Phelps ACE to start, part of an effort to provide students with training they’ll take from the classroom to the field for the build. His interest extended to asking about “the kinds of work that we’re doing with D.C. to make sure D.C. residents get hired,” she said.
“We have a strong commitment to hire D.C. residents,” she later told JOBS Coalition Pathways, giving a nod to the District’s First Source law that requires hiring D.C. residents for 51 percent of all new jobs.
The conversation surrounding this latest innovative project prompted ACAD Director Shelly Karriem to exclaim: “Heard that he’s gonna come and take a ride in our houseboat.”
To which Secretary Scalia responded: “It’s a deal.”
He also chatted with Sarah Friedman, a talent acquisitions specialist at Donohoe Construction. She provided insight into the company’s history, sharing that they are a family-owned business with the vast majority of projects inside the Beltway. She also praised Scalia’s questions for helping provide students with as much information as possible. “He was asking a little bit about what programs we have for particular high school students and what career paths they could expect if they joined us,” Friedman said. “I was able to explain that we have two distinct career paths: project management and field management.”
The secretary appeared especially engaged with the students as he moved around the space, asking about how they got interested in construction, what grades they were in and what they enjoyed doing in their classes, their future plans, as well as what they’d learned so far. “He asked what we were doing in our construction classes, and I told him we were building a kiln,” said ACAD student Andrea Ulmer, 17, noting Scalia also inquired about her age and what she wanted to do after graduation (currently, that’s study mathematics and journalism).
A sampling of additional questions asked, according to Moore, included: Where do people actually enter the industry if they want to enter an apprenticeship? And if it’s with a subcontractor, do they do the training?
“Not necessarily,” Moore said, reflecting on the conversation. “They might come to the D.C. Apprenticeship Academy. What if you did a program like ACAD or Phelps ACE? Well, then you can get advanced placement into an apprenticeship. Those were the kinds of things that were fun to make sure he tried to understand.”
After gaining insight into the dynamics of the construction industry, Scalia did get that chance to visit one of the carpentry labs at Phelps and observe hands-on learning in action. Moore noted an invitation would be extended to visit the skilled trades training facility at IDEA as well.
While there were no discussions of any agency efforts or commitment to expand workforce development, Moore said the Foundation hopes “in some of the follow up that we might be able to understand that better, which would really be helpful for us. It’s great that he came, and we hope that some day down the road that’ll have an impact.”
This isn’t the first time federal agency representatives have been introduced to ACAD. Senior officials from the Departments of Labor and Education toured the classrooms, training labs and tiny house project in 2017, with then-acting undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education James Manning calling out the program for “best practices.”