The Steel Yard, a refurbished former metalworking plant in Providence, RI and longtime LISC partner, functions as an industrial arts and jobs training center. Its Weld to Work program readies un- and underemployed residents to take on living-wage positions in the metal trades and is now an official part of the state’s new workforce development initiative, Real Jobs Rhode Island.
In the years after high school, Anthony Osorio, 28, took all sorts of jobs to pay the bills. “I worked in warehouses, Stop & Shops. Places like that,” recalls the soft-spoken native of Providence, RI. It wasn’t enough. “I wanted to pick up a skill, a trade,” he says.
On a tip from a friend, in February 2016 Osorio enrolled in a one-week class called Weld to Work at the Steel Yard, a freewheeling arts-based nonprofit in a refurbished former metalworking plant not far from his home on the city’s west side. During thirty intensive hours Osorio learned to wield the various tools that join, cut, grind, and drill metal. “I fell in love with welding right away,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I liked playing with fire and electricity. It’s awesome.”
Later that year Osorio took on Weld to Work 2.0, a four-week paid crash course in which he helped design and fabricate fencing commissioned for a nearby community garden. And today? Osorio is an apprentice pipefitter with Union Local 51, on his way to a classic version of the American dream—work that engages hands and mind, making a middle-class wage, with the security of health and pension plans.
Weld to Work, meanwhile, is experiencing its own coming of age. The program began nearly a decade ago as an informal apprenticeship in which novices helped experienced “Yardies” fulfill the Steel Yard’s manufacturing contracts for, say, municipal bike racks or garbage cans. This year Weld to Work became an official part of the state’s new workforce development initiative, Real Jobs Rhode Island. Real Jobs links employers in the state with job-training programs; together they tailor worker preparation to fill actual openings and develop the talent local companies require.
The Steel Yard lies in a historic industrial district of Providence surrounded by traditionally working-class neighborhoods hit hard by manufacturing losses of the late twentieth century. Founded as an industrial arts center, it offers studio space and classes in welding, blacksmithing, jewelry and ceramics. As the organization grew, its offerings to the community expanded, too, and today the Steel Yard is, at heart, an arts organization taking a creative approach to workforce development.
LISC, with deep roots in the neighborhood, had been encouraging and occasionally funding Weld to Work for years. “We believed the Weld to Work program had the potential to reach people who might not excel in traditional workforce training programs,” says Jeanne Cola, executive director of LISC Rhode Island. In 2014, LISC assigned an AmeriCorps service position to the Steel Yard. This made it possible for Margo Karoff-Hunger, a recent college grad and skilled welder who first picked up metalworking tools at the Steel Yard at age fifteen, to join the team as workforce development coordinator. Says Steel Yard Executive Director Howie Sneider, “LISC was always saying to us, ‘Come on, what if you could grow this?’ They really saw the need for employment in the community because that’s what they hear from people every day.”
The AmeriCorps position, notes Carrie Zaslow, a LISC program officer, was a lynchpin in the success of Weld to Work. “Without Margo dedicating her energy full time, the Steel Yard might not have been picked up by the Real Jobs RI program.”
Given the storied decline of American manufacturing, it comes as a surprise to many that the sector actually needs newly trained workers. That’s part of the problem, says Sneider. “For twenty years welding—manufacturing—wasn’t cool,” he says. “It wasn’t marketed broadly and tech programs in schools were getting defunded. So now there’s a gap.”
Today manufacturing employs about nine percent of Rhode Island’s workforce at above-average wages, yet many of these workers are aging Baby Boomers. “When you walk around a manufacturing floor, it’s visibly evident that the skilled workforce is getting close to retirement age,” explains Christian Cowan, center director at Polaris MEP, a nonprofit that supports Rhode Island manufacturing and coordinates the sector’s Real Jobs partnership.
Rhode Island’s manufacturers need employees with complex technical skills, but they’re also looking for new workers with the “soft skills” that will enable them to climb onto the first rung of the industry job ladder as, for example, machine operators or materials handlers. “A lot of what manufacturers are telling me today is that they’re having problems finding people just to show up on time or dress appropriately or who even want to work in manufacturing environments,” says Cowan.
That’s the Steel Yard’s sweet spot. In the wake of the 2008-09 recession, buoyed by federal recovery funds and determined to make the program an instrument of empowerment for local people, the Steel Yard set income eligibility for Weld to Work at the federal poverty line—$24,300 a year for a family of four. It recruits students from a population keenly in need of job opportunities.
Most, like Osorio, have never used industrial tools like the MIG welder or plasma cutter. They learn the calm, quiet comportment necessary to maintain safety in an industrial shop. They get a feel for the teamwork, manual dexterity, and spatial and math skills required to fulfill a real metalworking contract. Nearly all who participate in the invitation-only Weld to Work 2.0 finish the class. They get tips for interviews (“Be very polite!”) and connections to further training and certification.
“One of our goals is to support Rhode Island’s industry by providing a pool of qualified applicants who are trainable and who they can count on to stick around and be good employees,” says Karoff-Hunger, now a full-time Steel Yard employee. “Another has to do with the experience of the participants themselves. We want to create a positive educational experience, artistic experience—things that aren’t really common in the community that’s involved in Weld to Work.”
Though the program has only recently begun formally tracking its outcomes as part of Real Jobs RI (meanwhile boosting enrollment to about sixty students a year), Karoff-Hunger stays in touch with graduates. One alumnus is making steel cabinets at a midsized manufacturer. Another just completed welding certification school and is about to go to work for a small welding and fabricating plant about a half-mile from the Steel Yard. A third, who’d suffered from persistent depression and found it hard to keep any job, gained enough confidence in Weld to Work to join a maintenance team at a local high school. “He had never applied for anything skilled before because he thought, ‘I’m not a skilled person,’” says Sneider. “We see that story as a huge success.”
Gaining the proficiencies required to work in manufacturing is often a long process. After Weld to Work, Osorio enrolled in classes at New England Tech to brush up on math, passed the entrance exam for apprenticeship in the pipefitters’ union, and attended a two-month pre-apprenticeship program. He still has years of classroom instruction and on-the-job training to complete before he can apply to be a journeyman.
What Osorio found in Weld to Work was simply a place to “jump right in,” he says. At the Steel Yard, so evocative of the neighborhood’s proud manufacturing past, he glimpsed a future earning good money doing work he loves. And he went for it.