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Investment in Priority Hire Program to Help Formerly Incarcerated Individuals, People of Color Find Construction Jobs in Seattle

May 26, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

Communications Office

Women wearing hard hats and construction vests

In this 2019 photo, women in Mission Creek Corrections Center’s Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching program walk along a path on the prison grounds. Seattle’s Priority Hire program helps justice involved women who complete pre-apprenticeship programs find jobs. (Rachel Friederich, Communications Office)

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SEATTLE – When Victoria Garza entered prison in August 2018 for the second time, she never thought she would one day use the skills she learned in order to reinforce the metal structure components of the Washington State Convention Center’s expansion. Or that she would go on to be part of the decking crew of the city’s Climate Pledge Arena and new state-of-the-art hockey stadium and training facility for the Seattle Kraken.

But that’s exactly what the 36-year-old ironworker has been doing since she entered work release in March of this year.

“It blows my mind with every piece of iron that goes in place, all the beams that go in place,” said Garza, who is now a member of Iron Workers Local 86. “I never, ever thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be here.”

The City of Seattle, Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle recently announced a partnership to invest a combined $1.75 million into creating construction careers for formerly incarcerated people like Garza and others who come from underserved communities and face systemic barriers.

The investment supports construction workforce diversity and the City’s Priority Hire Program. The program, launched in 2015, prioritizes hiring of people living in economically depressed areas on City of Seattle construction projects. It uses city-funded and public/private partnership projects to prioritize hiring of residents who live in these areas.

Priority Hire puts an emphasis on providing outreach, training, placement and retention for local people of color, women and pre-apprenticeship graduates like justice-involved individuals completing that training through correctional skills programs like Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) (pdf) and Construction Trades Apprenticeship Program (CTAP).

TRAC is a 16-week course run at the DOC’s two women’s prisons. It gives women hands-on training in carpentry, iron work, construction, cement masonry, plastering and craft labor. At the end of the course, participants can test for preferred entry into union apprenticeships. CTAP is the pre-apprenticeship program run at the men’s prisons that focuses on general construction.

Jon Bersche, job training advisor for the City of Seattle, interacts regularly with job seekers and apprenticeship candidates. He says getting a first-hand view of individuals’ life transitions is rewarding.

“These new union apprentices add value to City job sites from day one, and more importantly, they’re building for themselves lifelong careers,” Bersche said. “Priority Hire started as a landmark social justice bill to keep jobs in the city and connect marginalized groups with family-wage jobs. It’s inspiring to see how Victoria and other apprentices are turning their lives around through this program.”

Preparing for Living Wage Jobs

The skilled trades market can be a viable career option for formerly incarcerated people, according to Steve Petermann, a manager for Correctional Industries, which oversees many of the DOC’s work training programs. The CTAP and TRAC programs are registered with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. This means the DOCs programs have agreements with numerous union building trades and apprenticeship programs that can give CTAP and TRAC graduates preferred entry into unionized trades jobs, Petermann said.

He added the DOC is also represented on Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Priority Hire Advisory Council.

“We are ensured that our releasing graduates and incarcerates have a voice among the represented groups who are affected by these kinds of initiatives and will continue to find acceptance and support,” Petermann said.

Structural ironworkers’ median pay in 2020 was $25.58 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In King County, Iron Workers Local 86 in Tukwila, pay for first period union ironworkers starts at $27.15 per hour and advances to $45.25 per hour at journeyman status.

It’s significantly higher than $19.57 per hour considered to be a living wage in King County for a single childless adult, as estimated by Living Wage Calculator. Ironworkers are also projected to experience a 5% increase in jobs through 2029.

Garza, whose last conviction was for possession of a controlled substance, received her training through the TRAC program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women. She’s been steadily employed since entering work release. She says it’s been a godsend toward her self-esteem and critical in helping her avoid the “bad crowds” that tangled her into a web of crime that led to her incarceration.

“I wasn’t going in the right direction before,” Garza said. “I was a very dysfunctional individual, and my motivation was not positive. Anywhere I went, I left a footprint of trouble. TRAC helped me see the obstacles I was facing and find ways to address them and figure out what I wanted to do. There’s not many programs out there that let you get training for a livable wage job and financial freedom.”

Overcoming Employment Barriers

Unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people are 27% higher than job seekers who do not have a criminal record, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Besides having a criminal record to contend with, formerly incarcerated people face a myriad of obstacles as they reenter society such as getting their driver’s license reinstated, finding reliable transportation and permanent housing. Furthermore, most formerly incarcerated people have little to no money for tools, work clothes or union dues upon reentry.

The DOC works with several non-profit and community organizations that help meet those needs according to Petermann. He’s says the DOC’s work with local organizations and the expansion of the priority hire program will help overcome these obstacles.

“There are still many barriers that face our releasing CTAP and TRAC graduates as they navigate the apprenticeship application processes and job markets,” Petermann said. “These non-profit and community-based organizations we work with are very proactive and responsive in helping our graduates.”

Building a New Legacy

Garza said one of the best, and perhaps surprising things she learned after joining the ironworkers union after prison was how many people were willing to give her a chance.

She said she met journeymen as well as other formerly incarcerated people successfully holding jobs in the trades who were willing to mentor her and help her advance her skills.

“I formed relationships with people who are going to pull me up and have my best interests at heart, whereas before I was surrounded by people doing the same bad things just because it was comfortable,” Garza said. “There are so many people out there who want to help you along and level up and help you out in life.”

Garza says her past won’t define her future. She’s proud people will see her new legacy when they look to the Seattle skyline and see the silhouettes of high-rises Garza helped build.

“If you want something, go after your dreams and don’t hold back,” Garza said. “There are definitely going to be a lot of nos, but someone in that pile of nos is going to say yes. My attitude now is ‘Let’s go! What’s it going to take to achieve my goals today? Let’s go!’”