Detroit — Before Marcus Strong was released from prison last year, he knew he wanted better for his life.
It was during a skilled trades conference shortly after his release in August 2016 that Strong learned about a program that could prepare him to enter an apprenticeship program.
That program was the Skilled Trades Enrollment Assistant Program, or STEAP, an initiative of Detroit-based nonprofit Better Men Outreach.
Strong, 34, of Detroit entered the program and tested for an apprenticeship. Now he’s an ironworker with Barton Malow at U.S. Steel at the Zug Island plant in River Rouge.
“Coming home I got right into the program,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to provide for my family and do all the things that I was previously without having to commit crime, without having to go around the law.”
The program comes at a time when the city of Detroit is dealing with a shortage of qualified skilled trades workers — including ironworkers, electricians and plumbers — to fulfill demand.
Numerous projects are in the pipeline for “greater downtown” Detroit during the next several years, including four projects from Bedrock Detroit that would create a total of 15,000 construction jobs: development of the former Hudson’s department store site, transformation of the largely vacant Monroe Blocks between Greektown and Campus Martius, rehabilitation of the long-unoccupied Book Building and Tower, and an addition for the One Campus Martius building.
Dino Vann, 34, founder of the 12-week program, tutors participants in math and helps them get their basic requirements in order so they can prepare for apprenticeships, such as a driver’s license, high school diploma or GED.
It’s volunteer work Vann does weekly and in his spare time. He’s worked on numerous Detroit job sites, including Little Caesars World Headquarters, the M-1 Rail and the recently opened Little Caesars Arena.
Some of the program participants, who are mostly men, have criminal backgrounds and are looking for better lives. Vann can relate to those he mentors. He’s spent time in prison, including three years for a conviction of resisting arrest in a case from April 2012.
Since the program’s beginning in June 2016, 15 men and two women have graduated and went on to become union workers. Vann says there are others, but they are harder to track because they are non-union.
Every week a group of about 20 gather at St. Cecelia’s Gym on the city’s west side for mentoring and to encourage one another. Their three-hour meetings take place in a classroom setting and include working on math problems and a huddle where they share good news.
One recent Friday, Vann stressed the importance of math skills before the students started a timed math exercise.
Julius Barnett, a 32-year-old student, said he likes Vann’s style of teaching division, fractions and algebra.
“He makes it fun,” he said. “The best thing about it is ... we stay right there until everybody gets it before we move on to anything else.”
Barnett said he hopes to go into the skilled trades as a step up from his current job as a custodial worker. He said he’s interested in electrical and plumbing work, but he’s also leaning more toward ironwork.
Vann, a married father of five from Detroit, said he chose the skilled trades because of the opportunity to make a decent living.
The average starting wage for an apprentice, including electricians and carpenters, is $20 an hour, said Pat Devlin, secretary treasurer of the Michigan Building Trades Council. After six months, that increases to $25-$28 including health benefits and pension plans.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to make decent money,” Vann said. “Other jobs were $10, $12 (an hour.) This was an opportunity to make some good money. Coming from the neighborhood that we come from that type of money is unbelievable.”
The STEAP program not only helps the students. It feeds the skilled trades industry with workers at a critical time.
It’s been a challenge for contractors to find and hire qualified workers in the city as the “greater downtown” Detroit is in the midst of $5.4 billion development boom.
Mike Jackson, executive secretary treasurer for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, which represents 14,000 skilled trades workers, anticipates the industry will see growth during the demand period.
“We hope to grow our membership by 1,000 carpenters in southeast Michigan in the next year to fill all the work that is coming,” Jackson said. “We could add an additional 500 to 1,000 more carpenters every year over the next five years, if current projections hold true.”
In March, a dozen contractors on the Little Caesars Arena project had been fined a total $2.9 million for frequently falling short on hiring at least 51 percent of Detroit workers. An average 27 percent of total hours worked at the arena site were performed by Detroit residents from April 2015 to March.
Devlin said the trades industry is suffering reductions with the loss of baby boomers from the workforce. There’s also another hurdle.
“A lot of these millennials don’t want to work in the buildings trades,” he said. “It’s a hard industry.”
The shortage is not just in construction in the region.
Patti Poppe, president and CEO of CMS Energy Corp. and Consumers Energy, can attest to the need for skilled trade workers in utilities.
In a recent search for qualified lineworkers, Poppe said it took months to fill 50 positions. And there will be more of a need as 47 percent of the 600 lineworkers currently employed at Consumers Energy become eligible to retire during the next 10 years.
“We have some jobs we cannot fill,” she said. “A four-year degree is perfect for some, but not for all. We need to rebrand the American dream.”
Strong says his work days are long but worth it.
He says he works 12-hour days and earns $30 an hour, something he said he couldn’t imagine before. He now serves as a mentor with STEAP to let others see what’s possible.
“It’s a level of comfort and stability,” he said. “Not just being able to do things for yourself, but be able to do things for your family... You’re not rich, but it’s a really comfortable lifestyle.”
In 2009, Strong was convicted of manslaughter in an incident from 2003. Strong contends that he wasn’t at the scene of the crime. He was released from prison in August 2016.
Things are different now for Strong, who says he can show his children, ages 15, 12 and 11, work he’s done with his hands. Among them, the hand rails at the Detroit Foundation Hotel, the former Detroit fire headquarters on Larned, across from Cobo Center.
“To be part of rebuilding Detroit and eventually America is amazing,” he said.
Vann said the group is a good way for participants to remove themselves from life’s challenges — such as legal or family troubles — and be around others who are focused on positive goals.
The STEAP program gets results, said Kevin McDonell, training coordinator for the Iron Workers Apprentice Training Center at the Ironworkers Local 25 in Wixom.
“(Dino Vann’s) students, when they come in here and apply, they almost consistently rank in the top 10 as far as scoring on the work keys,” he said. “We’ve got eight already apprentices that applied and came into the program. He’s done very well.”
Strong said the program is a brotherhood with high expectations for its graduates.
“It’s amazing that you got this caliber of guys coming from all so many different sorted backgrounds, most from being incarcerated, and now we’re not just excelling in the careers in the workplace but in the community,” he said.