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Illinois program recruits more women, minorities for construction work

Students 11-week T.C.A.R.T. road constructitraining program attended classes comportment constructimath Black Chamber Commerce Lake County offices Waukegan before an eight-week

Students in the 11-week T.C.A.R.T. road construction training program attended classes in comportment and construction math at Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County offices in Waukegan before an eight-week technical course offered in southwest suburban Wilmington. | Submitted photo

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For more information on the highway construction training program T.C.A.R.T., call the Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County at (847) 599-9510 or the Chicago Urban League at (773) 285-5800.

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Updated: March 12, 2014 3:39AM

Wesley Simpson of Waukegan is serious about getting a good job, which is why he recently underwent a rugged 11-week training program for road construction.

“Getting this opportunity means a lot,” said Simpson, 33, who last earned $10 an hour as a forklift driver, a job in Aurora, more than 60 miles from home.

Road construction, though seasonal, pays well and offers good benefits. Simpson could earn between $15 and $20 an hour to start. If he lands an apprenticeship, his hourly wage would climb to $37.

“I need the money,” Simpson said. “I have a 6-year-old son to support.”

Simpson graduated in December from T.C.A.R.T., the Transportation Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Training, Referral and Intermodal Placement Program. It’s a long name for a clear-cut goal: recruiting minorities and women for government-funded road construction.

“The bottom line is right now in the state of Illinois approximately 92 percent of highway construction workers are white males,” said Rev. Arthur Gass, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County. “Those numbers have to change if we’re going to be in compliance with state and federal mandates.”

The Black Chamber is one of four community-based organizations − the other three are in Chicago − that are working in partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation to recruit and train people for the program, which consists of three-weeks of classes in construction math and comportment and eight weeks of hands-on-construction training in south suburban Wilmington.

Just 125 T.C.A.R.T. spots are available for residents of Lake and McHenry counties; 532 applications were accepted.

Trainees are 85 percent African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white, according to Gass, who said federal contracts require 16.9 percent minority and 6.9 percent female participation.

“The workforce ought to reflect the diversity of the community,” Gass said. “Highway construction jobs are supported by the motor fuel tax, 14 percent of which is paid by African Americans and yet we pick up less than 2 percent of those jobs. That’s pretty lopsided.”

Petite Coleman, 30, of Beach Park, last earned $12.31 an hour as a certified computer tech at a warehouse store in Vernon Hills. Her talent and liking for hands-on work came through during the technical training portion of T.C.A.R.T.

“Pouring and laying concrete was my favorite,” Coleman said. “The instructor had me doing multiple things and, by doing so many things, I was involved in the process from beginning to end.”

In road construction, Coleman said, she can work the same amount of hours but double her income. She wants to join a union. Her goal is to become a welding inspector, a job that requires a thorough knowledge of many trades.

“I’m a hard worker,” Coleman said. “I believe that you go to work to do your job. I don’t mind working long hours. I just want to be compensated.”

The Black Chamber will also work to help trainees find jobs for the springtime road construction season.

“We will reach out to any and all contractors, be they union or non-union, and make them aware that our people have the training, that they have the skill sets required and that they will make exemplary employees,” Gass said.

T.C.A.R.T. in Lake County has a 97 percent success rate so far, Gass said. The program has a zero tolerance policy for tardiness or absence. Trainees also have to figure out transportation to Wilmington, 95 miles south of Waukegan. Some have formed car pools. Some commute to Chicago to catch a bus from the Urban League office there.

“These are people determined to work and acquire the skills they need,” Gass said.

T.C.A.R.T., Gass said, “eliminates the excuse that contractors often use: that they can’t find qualified people.”

“They now have a pool of highly qualified people who have proven themselves,” Gass said.

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