Workforce development program bolsters underserved populations, feeds growing construction industry

Devan Blackman, center, and classmates learned to work with power tools as part of their 12-week construction trades certificate program

For Devan Blackman, FIU’s Engineering Center has come to feel like a second home.

There’s a 5-foot-by-5-foot wooden “house” there that she and her classmates built and wired for electricity with their bare hands – something she’d never envisioned herself doing up until eight months ago. But the little project house holds a deeper meaning for Blackman. It symbolizes how she rebuilt her life from scratch.

Blackman moved to Florida with a degree in mass communication a few years ago, but she was unable to find a steady job in her field. She eventually wound up homeless and stayed at a local shelter, Camillus House, while she tried to get back on her feet. Gigs as a stagehand came along here and there, but nothing seemed to work out long-term.

One day, she saw a flyer on the wall at Camillus House that changed her whole trajectory. It advertised a 12-week certificate program at FIU for non-degree-seeking people looking to learn basic skills in construction.

Inside the in-progress project house

Blackman had never used a power tool before, but the program offered meals and transportation to class – and it was all free. So she decided to give it a shot. “What’s the worst that could happen?” she thought.

Supported by the Lennar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Miami-based home construction company Lennar Corporation, the Certificate Program in Construction Trades is a workforce development program offered to underserved populations in Miami-Dade County by the Moss School of Construction, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

It teaches carpentry, electrical systems, masonry, worksite safety and other basic skills in construction – an important and growing industry in Florida. The median salary for construction laborers in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree is $52,000 in Florida, and employment in these jobs is projected to grow 12 percent by 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

To complete the program, students participate in 80 hours of classroom instruction and 120 hours of hands-on lab training, which includes building the project house, worksite visits and more. They earn valuable certifications that will set them apart in the job market, including an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10 Training Certificate and a National Center for Construction Education and Research Blue Card. At the end, students participate in a career fair hosted just for them on campus.

“The Lennar Foundation, having the desire of giving back to the community, reached out to FIU to create a program that would benefit the community with an emphasis on serving those who need it the most,” said Jose Faria, interim director at the Moss School, noting their goal was to create a program would bolster those in the community who had a “strong commitment to succeed in life.”

Students learn basic skills in electrical systems, carpentry, masonry and more.

Mentorship and guidance are key facets of the program.

“This program is really all about second chances,” said Victoria Tomas, the program advisor and resident “mom” to its participants. It goes beyond the hands-on skills learned in the classroom, she says. “Sometimes what people need most is just someone who believes in them.”

It turns out Blackman has a knack for construction. She completed the program’s trades track and is now a teaching assistant for its second cohort. Most days, you can find her at the Moss School, where she now works part time. She’s also returned to take the certificate program again, this time in the carpentry track. She’s decided to pursue a master’s in construction management at FIU, and she’s living in her own apartment.

Blackman is just one of many success stories from the first cohort. In fact, 30 of the 31 students who completed the program in October 2018 have either been hired or received a raise at their current job.

Lennar Foundation Chair Marshall Ames said he is pleased with the first cohort’s success, and he looks forward to expanding the program to bring 200 students to employment each year in the future.

“We firmly believe that our FIU partnership brings valuable employment skills to underserved youth who might otherwise find the job market and career opportunities much more challenging,” Ames said.

It rings true for Blackman. “This program completely turned my life around. It gave me direction when I felt like I didn’t have any.”

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About Clara-Meretan Kiah

Clara-Meretan Kiah is a content strategist for FIU Foundation, Inc., and an alumna of FIU's College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and The Honors College.