By Ashley Kang
On Aug. 14, advocates and community residents gathered for a rally and march to demand racial, economic and environmental justice for the communities living near the I-81 viaduct. Additionally, organizers are pushing for jobs, demanding the New York State Department of Transportation make a commitment to hiring local workers for this multi-year, multi-billion dollar construction project.
The Stand wants to track this progress and share perspectives from minorities pursuing and working in the skilled trades, a field that pays comfortably above median levels in many areas and includes chances for wage growth as skill level increases.
One of today’s speakers, Gerald Funderburg, who recently completed the Department of Transportation WorkSmart NY Program, a seven-week training to prepare students for various construction jobs, is attending the march to support the mission of the Urban Jobs Task Force to ensure local, minority workers have an opportunity to be hired for the heavy construction work required for I-81’s removal.
Funderburg sat down with The Stand last week to share how he came to work in the skilled trades and what challenges minorities in this industry still face.
Q: What drew you to this career path?
A: Because of my past conviction for Medicare fraud, I knew it would be a long road to return to my previous career in the medical field. I’ve always been fascinated by construction, building things on my own. When I lived in Detroit, all the work I did in my home was done by me — me and YouTube. So I looked it up, to see how to move into construction.
Q: What training did you take?
A: Since I was just out of prison, I qualified for free training through Syracuse (EOC) Educational Opportunity Center, and a flagger certificate was part of the program. The training is perfect. We were able to get experience in carpentry … learn how to lay asphalt and concrete. The training also provided some needed equipment: hard hats, a reflective vest, gloves and a tool belt with some tools. They help get you a start.
Q: What were some of the challenges?
A: The EOC program was perfect on paper. But what they do not take into consideration is the red tape that is in the construction industry, for African-Americans and people of color. After the training, I continued to work an evening job at a warehouse … I still wanted that opportunity in the construction business. So, I’m working May, June, July [still at the warehouse] and nothing, nothing at all. I was disappointed when I didn’t immediately get the opportunity. It took time. I was done in May and didn’t get a job offer until August.
Q: Now what is a typical day like for you?
A: First of all, you got to get up. There is no sleeping until 10 o’clock in the morning, and that’s mainly due to weather. You want to get a lot of the job done before that sun is directly above your head. For me, because of where the jobs are at — I could travel up to an hour radius away from Syracuse — I have to get up a lot earlier so I can get there. I wake up at 4:15 a.m. each morning. I leave the house about 5 a.m. so I get to the job site by 6:30 a.m. Soon after that, we have a meeting, noting what we’re going to do, how long we’re going to be out — but that is never set in stone. You have to be flexible, and you got to be willing to stand. You got to be willing to eat on the job. There’s no really official breaks, especially as a flagger. A flagger is there to protect the workers, so they work, you got to work. Staying hydrated is huge, and you don’t want to put too much sugar in your system or salt because of the heat. You also need to cover yourself. I usually wear long sleeves and bright colors to keep the sun off your skin. Wear steel toe work boots, make sure you put your Dr. Scholl’s in. You got to invest in your craft if you’re going to do it. We usually end by 4 p.m., but the latest I’ve been on the job is 6 o’clock. But they pay overtime, and overtime is anything that’s over eight hours in a day.
Q: What is the hardest part of the job?
A: It’s the standing. My position as a flagger, I have to be the front person. I have to constantly be ahead of the pavement equipment. So I have to relocate every 15 to 20 minutes. My first day, that was a lot of walking, especially the end of the day when I had to make my way back to my car. That’s one thing that showed I’m a new guy. My supervisor pulled me to the side and told me, ‘You can jump in one of the cars and get ahead of us.’ The flagger is one of the most important jobs on the construction site because we protect the crew as well as the equipment from oncoming and opposite traffic. We have a strong presence redirecting traffic in an organized way. We use walkies to communicate with the other flaggers, especially when they are not in your line of vision. You must know certain commands.
Q: What are your thoughts on President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan?
A: First, the hope point of view. I hope that the money that is coming from the federal government reaches down to minorities. These initiatives have great intent; look good on paper. Congress pushes money; it is dispersed, but somewhere down the line, it gets chokehold and redirected to the same people that have received it for decades. I feel, we need more accountability on this level in order for that money to get to minorities. … You need some strong folks at the county level, the city levels where the construction is happening to make sure [minorities are hired]. They need to come to the site and look at the crew. There must be follow through. I do like the fact that he is focusing on infrastructure with the hope of getting minorities an opportunity in the business and not just putting money into welfare. Because we need infrastructure, and these are jobs that will continue to be in demand.
Q: What would you tell the next generation about this work?
A: I would encourage them to go into the trades industry because it is not going anywhere. That’s one of the first things to think about when choosing a career path — go into an industry where you know there will be consistency for decades. We’re always going to need new roads, new buildings, electricity, water. I think we have to get away from the falsehood of college. College doesn’t guarantee you nothing but debt. That’s it. I went to school. I’ll say it again. I went to school, undergrad, master’s degree and I have debt … If I invest $150,000 to $200,000 into education, but I come out starting that $44,000, that’s $34,000 gross. It is going to take 25 years to pay back. In my opinion, that’s a bad investment. Where if I go into a trade — I wish someone had taught me this — like what I’m doing now, as a flagger which pays $50 an hour. Consider 40 hours a week, and in reality, there’s always overtime. So you bring home near $2,000 a week. Say, you did it for the season with consistent work, you’re talking about $10,000 a month for seven months, that’s $70,000 a year. Many certificates for the trades can be earned for free or a limited fee. This can create a nice middle class lifestyle. The numbers speak for themselves. I would love to see more minorities go into the trades — electrician, plumbing, construction, carpentry, steel worker.
Q: Why aren’t more going into this industry?
A: It’s not being marketed. It’s a hidden industry that many people don’t know anything about or how to get into it. So the marketing has to come from individuals like myself, which I do now. It’s also an industry that once you get in, you can grow. You can get additional credentials. And just on the job, you gain experience. The best experience is really on the job experience. I highly encourage women, minority women and men to get into the industry. You got to make some sacrifices initially. Being new to it, you’re going to do some entry level jobs; you’ll shovel, carry cement bags. It’s OK. You’ll get paid — paid to learn.
Q: How do you think this industry can change and open up?
A: I think many of these organizations — like the EOC — are doing well. Really, they look perfect on paper. But we need others to help these organizations, to bridge the gap between the organization and the industry. We allow the industry to use an organization as an advertisement for them, but then they are not forced to follow through and provide jobs. That’s what I’m going to say on the 14th, and hopefully through my advocacy with the Urban Jobs Task Force, I can serve as a spokesperson for the industry itself. Direct others to opportunities. To just be honest about this industry and how we can change and continue to change. They can be changed, we see them change throughout history. So there’s no reason to believe that we can’t change this industry. There was once a time where Black folks weren’t allowed to play basketball. Now they dominate that industry.