Impressive Pre-Apprenticeship Program - Cypress Mandela

In my explorations of the Skills Gap I keep stumbling across amazing, successful programs.  I cannot see a State much less the United States ever having a comprehensive skilled workers program supporting future skilled employees from 8th grade through apprenticeships and into careers, as exists in Germany, Switzerland and to a degree the United Kingdom.  But I do see amazing programs that play crucial roles in their communities. Cypress Mandela Training Center (CMTC) is a perfect example.

A Little History

Following the 1989 earthquake which toppled a section of the elevated highway in Oakland, Art Shanks conceived of a program to take Oakland’s un/underemployed youth and train them for jobs helping to rebuild the highway.  What began in 1993 is now, 25 years later, a thriving pre-apprentice training “boot camp” program. It prepares youth for jobs in the construction trades and, among other partnerships, feeds workers into jobs at PG&E where they earn over $40 per hour.  CMTC mission states that it is “dedicated to improving the lives of the people it serves by providing pre-apprentice construction and life skills training.” It is a non profit and its programs are free to the students. It is funded by donations and grants.  

How does it work?

Cypress Mandela runs one main program -- providing it a narrow focus.  Each session has about 50 students, roughly 10 percent women. Each student is carefully vetted for eligibility: at least 18 years old, Driver’s license,  DMV print-out, high school diploma or GED, Social Security card, proof of legal right to work in the US. They are interviewed. Selection of students is based on a combination of factors including need, interest in the construction trades and an assessment of readiness for the rigors of the program.

The 16 week sessions run sequentially, three per year.  On the start date each student is given a uniform and hard hat which they must wear at all times on the property.  Each student is administered a drug test. And while there is some lee way at first, by the end of the course the student must be clean in order to receive their certifications.

The name “boot camp” is purposeful.  The idea is to instill in the students a sense of focus and rigor within a very structured environment.  Any infraction -- showing up late, using a cell phone, disruption of the instruction, not being in uniform -- is punished.  First it is push ups or jumping jacks. Then the punishment escalates to being sent home with an unexcused absence. Each student is granted three unexcused absences before being kicked out.

Curiculum and Pedagogy

The instruction includes several areas: Math, life skills, construction/tool usage classroom skills and hands-on construction.  

The life skills are taught by Douglas Butler.  Mr. Butler has been a law enforcement officer, worked in construction, been incarcerated, been an addict.  He tells me that he knows where many of these students are “coming from.” He has crafted a life skills curriculum which includes materials he has accumulated over the years.  He takes me into his office and shows a variety of manuals and print outs. One is basic Spanish. Another is an Anger Management tool kit. Among many instructional techniques he conducts roll plays giving his students scenarios to play out.

The classroom where construction skills are taught has 5 foot by 3 foot or larger orange-painted boards mounted on the walls each neatly displaying the tools of the various trades the students will be learning: carpentry and framing, plumbing, concrete, electrical, etc.

Out in the main warehouse -- a area the size of a football field -- is where the hands-on work takes place.  Over the 16 weeks a house is framed. I see the three-room house from the last session. Disassembling it is one of the first tasks for the new class.  “We don’t waste anything.” the instructor, Travis Watts tells me. Nearby is a tar shingle roof upon which solar panels are installed. Against a wall are several frames and forms where concrete can be poured.  A dedicated room where PG&E poles are mounted so students can learn techniques for climbing poles.

Each of the instructors I met was African American and has a real world, construction background.  Like the founder, Art, most are members of one of the trade unions. Art’s background includes being a journeyman cement mason.  They each also have extensive education and training experience. Art graduated from UC Berkeley and was an educator before starting CMTC.  Many also have military experience which underpins the pedagogy of the curriculum. Each class day includes three sessions physical training. The group I observed were running double time between tasks.

Finding the Right Job for a Good Career

Job placement is a key success measure of the program.  The instructors are discussing with the students their affinity with each of the trades to which they are exposed.  As the 16 weeks draws to a close matches are made with the appropriate trade unions or specific companies who are looking for apprentices.  PG&E has partnered with CMTC to co-teach an additional training program of PG&E skills which is offered to qualified graduates. Graduation from this additional program can then lead to a job as an apprentice at PG&E.

At the end of the 16 weeks each proud graduate receives a stack of certificates: CPR and first aid, confined space, hazmat/environmental, OSHA safety as well was familiarity with 10 or more skilled trades.

On Friday I was invited to attend a job fair that CMTC was hosting for the Oakland public high school students.  Arranged around the warehouse were tables staffed by each of the local trade unions. The pipe fitters had stands set up where the high school students could practice brazing pipe.  Out in the parking lot the Iron Workers were demonstrating the use of a torch burning impressive holds in ½” steel plate. This fair demonstrated the close connection between CMTC and the union apprentice programs.


Clearly CMTC is sustainable having thrived for 25 years. I asked Art and Sylvester Hodges, the Director of Training what it would take to scale it; double or triple the size of CMTC’s program.  First, they both agreed that the demand exists for more qualified skilled tradesmen. Their recipe for growth must start with more funding.  Art bemoaned how the Federal and State money for their programs has been drying up over the past couple of years. With more budget, they explained, they could easily add a second concurrent class for 50 students.  They would hire a few more instructions and be off and running.


Vocational Education, Case Studies, Unions


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