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Saturday, May 14, 2022

Seriously, you can learn construction at Brown

Learning In partnership with Providence’s Building Futures, Brown jump-starts careers in construction

Brown University

Not long ago, Christian Domenech had a job, but he didn’t have a career: “I was a non-union carpenter working for a privately owned business,” the Providence resident said. “But what I really wanted was to join a union.”

Domenech was one of the 87% of American construction workers who didn’t belong to a union, according to federal data. Like many non-union workers, he didn’t have a steady stream of guaranteed work, nor did he have comprehensive benefits.

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted construction projects across Rhode Island, some permanently, Domenech decided to make a change. He joined the construction pre-apprenticeship program at Building Futures, a Providence nonprofit that allows Rhode Islanders from all backgrounds to learn the fundamentals of a wide variety of construction trades without paying tuition or incurring debt. 

After five weeks of classroom and hands-on instruction, Domenech went to work as an apprentice carpenter for Sweeney Drywall. A year later, he completed his apprenticeship, joined the local carpenters’ union and began to enjoy competitive pay and benefits.

Domenech’s workplace since 2020? The site of Brown University’s future Performing Arts Center, slated to open in 2023.

While it’s no secret that new construction at Brown produces state-of-the-art facilities for students, faculty, staff and visitors, it also plays a role in jumpstarting construction careers for Rhode Islanders. 

Over the last 15 years, more than 320 apprentices hired by Building Futures have logged upwards of 175,000 hours on dozens of projects at Brown — and 108 of them have completed their apprenticeship programs and progressed into well-paying construction careers. Some have even continued to work on campus after mastering their respective trades.

Building Futures President and Executive Director Andrew Cortés explained that registered apprenticeship programs are a powerful engine of economic mobility because they allow people to learn and earn at the same time. Most educational programs require students to pay tuition, and many are tough to juggle alongside a full-time job — thus making them inaccessible to those with low incomes.

But at Building Futures, apprentices make a living wage from the moment they begin their education, including the weeks they spend in classrooms and other training facilities. Then, after a year or more of hands-on training, apprentices become full-time workers and union members, enjoying competitive pay and benefits.

Cortés said the organization, founded in 2007, attributes much of its success to Brown. Its partnership with the University began in the height of the Great Recession, when most capital improvement projects in Rhode Island ground to a halt. Brown was one of the only entities in the state whose projects carried on, Cortés said. 

“We started this with Brown,” Cortés said. “They didn’t just invest in this apprentice utilization program for their own purposes — they gave back to the community. That’s why this partnership is so near and dear to our hearts.”

Inside the construction classroom

At Building Futures headquarters — one corner of a sprawling former mill complex in Providence’s Valley neighborhood — students split their time between classroom learning and hands-on training. On a recent spring day, a union insulator stood at the head of a cavernous classroom, teaching 13 students about insulation materials and methods.

“Would any of you turn down a placement at Brown University?” He asked.

The students shook their heads vigorously. One shouted, “No, sir!” 

Most won’t have to. Cortés estimates that today, close to two thirds of all Building Futures graduates — many of whom are people from low-income households or residents who were formerly incarcerated — spend at least part of their time as apprentices on projects at Brown. 

Most recently, apprentices have helped complete Brown’s new health and wellness center and residence hall, started work on the in-progress Brook Street residence hall and began to assemble the moveable marvel of a performance space inside the Performing Arts Center. As of March 2022, apprentices had contributed more than 50,000 of the 350,000 worker hours logged at the PAC.