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Building program adds self-esteem

LOWER BRULE, S.D. - A training program for construction-minded students prepares participants for the brick and mortar part of the industry, but it also provides the students with self-esteem.

A pre-apprenticeship program in the construction trades successfully moved 13 participants to new levels of achievement with completion of a home project, a home refurbish project and dam construction in progress.

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe is the first tribe to take on the training program that will eventually connect students who complete a study and hands-on training program with contractors. The students can then become involved with apprenticeship work that will lead to journeyman status in the building industry.

The Workforce Training Program is a cooperative effort between the trade unions, an organization called the Bridge, the tribe and the federal government.

"This is a showcase for the other tribes. It's the best thing the unions have taken part in," said Will Cox, member of Operating Engineers Local No. 3. Cox was instrumental in getting the program started at Lower Brule.

To show off the accomplishments of the class, an open house at a nearly completed home preceded graduation ceremonies. The home will be occupied by Dustin Montoya and replaces his home which burned.

Two classes have completed 10-week training sessions. They have refurbished one home, built another on an existing foundation, remodeled a kitchen and are in the process of building a dam, using heavy equipment abandoned by the BIA.

"All along I had an interest in being a carpenter and building houses. I needed to get the experience and take what I learned and help other students from the next class. I encourage others to do this," said Ken Touche, student foreman. Touche will go on as long as he can with the training program, he said. He would like to continue in carpentry and work in a union on the Lower Brule reservation.

Lyle Hawk Wing, another graduate, said he learned a lot from the program and plans to get his high school diploma and go into the construction trades. His brother, Jesse Hawk Wing, said he learned a lot from the program and plans to continue if he can. "I thought it would be tougher. I love this kind of work."

The students created designs for the Montoya home and put them together to create a solar-efficient, 900-square-foot dwelling with a real rock fa?ade entrance.

Getting into the building trades program is quite simple. First, pass a drug test, then attend classes. Jerry Lee Jackson, director of the Bridge, an organization that coordinates the training programs, said 80 students have signed up for the next class at Crow Creek and another 70 at Lower Brule. At Crow Creek, 22 homes need work and at Lower Brule another six are set for refurbishing or construction.

The attrition rate can appear high. For example, of the 32 people who signed up for the latest 10-week program, eight graduated. About 45 percent of the students don't make it past the drug test, another 50 percent will quit before the one-week OSHA safety training is finished and from there another 50 percent will finally graduate. Estimates are that 28 percent of those who sign up for the program will finish and graduate.

The students receive a stipend of $4 per hour while attending classroom work and $7 per hour for hands-on work on the projects. The students will also share in the profit from a project should it come in under budget. Students are also supplied hard hats and safety glasses and students get help with baby sitters and transportation.

Al Hammond, Red Cliff Chippewa and head instructor, said safety is very important. The students get classroom instruction about OSHA safety standards.

All students will get to experience every aspect of the building trades from electricity to masonry to carpentry and beyond, Hammond said. The students can later choose the area that interests them most and focus on developing those skills further. When the student is finished with the program, which could take a year of a series of 10-week classes, he or she will be connected with a contractor and an apprenticeship program will begin.

"There is no quick fix. If you get 10 good journeymen, you are doing good. It takes four to five years to become a journeyman," Hammond said. When the student receives a journeyman's card he or she can go anywhere to find work or stay on the reservation, Hammond said.

Students experience all aspects of the building process, including management of funds. Two women went through the American Indian Women in Construction Management phase of the program. Diane Kitto and Charlotte Flute kept up with the finances, material ordering and other aspects of the management of a construction company during the process of building the Montoya home.

It's not enough to learn how to swing a hammer and measure a board only once or connect the right wires to the electrical box. The program will provide business courses so a person can envision a time when he or she is eventually owns or manages a construction company.

The project is funded by the trade unions and managed through the Bridge, an American Indian Training Trust Fund. The Bridge is a non-profit organization headquartered in San Diego, Calif. Its mission statement says it is to develop partnerships between organized labor and American Indian people with a commitment to the core values they share. It is also committed to creating apprenticeship education, training and job placement for American Indians.

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe is not obligated to commit funds to the project, but as the program gets established it will assume ownership, but without financial obligation, Jackson said. The goal is to develop a regional training program on the Lower Brule Reservation for engineer and building trades. Cox said the unions are supportive of such a move.

"This tribe has insight to get things done. We asked five different tribes to take the lead, but Lower Brule came forward. This tribe has so much going for it," Jackson said.

Bill Ziegler, director of the Lower Brule economic development department, said there was a great transition from first hearing about the project to sitting at the kitchen table in tribal headquarters talking with Jackson to "seeing what has been done."

The Lower Brule program also includes a school-to-work component. High school students from 10th grade on can participate in the classes and construction work while adding hours to what can eventually lead to an apprenticeship program in the construction trades.

The program instills a sense of responsibility and self-determination because the student has to abide by the rules of the workplace. That means coming to work on time and every day. Hammond said a financial bonus incentive is built into the payroll if a person is diligent and on time. At the same time there is a 5-cent per hour reduction in pay if that student is late.

Robert Foudray, Lower Brule tribal manager, told the graduates that former President Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here."

He told students, that taking responsibility for their actions was important. "The road to success is in 'The buck stops here.' I may fail many times, but I'm not a failure unless I blame someone else," he said.

The first Workforce Training Program started in Wisconsin on the Stockbridge Munsee reservation, Jackson said. Then the program moved to California, incorporated as a non-profit and started an apprenticeship program on the Torres-Martinez Rancheria. The Bridge offices are now located in San Diego.