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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Using federal funds for the Ohio River Bridges Project, Kentucky awarded a $1.9 million contract last year to Kentucky State University to oversee a program preparing workers for building a downtown bridge and new Spaghetti Junction interchange.
Roughly 200 people have learned to read construction blueprints and get traffic control skills, and 31 participants now have jobs of some kind, according to interviews.
But as it nears its one-year anniversary next month, Bridges to Opportunities has resulted in just three people working on the bridges project itself – although state and construction officials expect those numbers to increase as construction ramps up.
Still, with as much as 80 percent of the work on the downtown crossing to be done by experienced "journeymen" with years of training, there won't be a glut of work for those starting to learn new trades, said Tyra Redus, executive director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's office for civil rights and small business development.
"The intent and the goal of this program was not to be a jobs program for the bridges project," Redus said, adding that those jobs are merely "one of the benefits."
Instead, the program's goal is to assess potential candidates for construction careers, give them introductory skills and help train them for those jobs through enrollments in union and other apprenticeships. Individual career counseling, testing assistance and other guidance also are part of the program.
"We'd love to see the majority of these participants on the bridges project," she said. "But given the reality of the situation, which is this project needs journeymen, there's only a certain number of journeymen that are available at the moment that we can provide."
Redus said the program's success will be based on factors such as the number of people who enter the program; how many participants ultimately find employment; and the number who receive support services.
The initial $1.9 million will run out in June but Kentucky expects to commit a similar amount annually to keep the program going through 2016, when the bridges are scheduled to open.
"We define our success based on the ability to equip the community – particularly minorities and females – with transferable skills," she said. "We're not just focused on giving people skills to work today on the bridges project. We want to give them skills to be employed – gainfully employed – from now into the future."
Under its contract with the Transportation Cabinet, Frankfort-based Kentucky State University is to "develop, manage and supervise a workforce development program" for the bridges project's downtown crossing -- Kentucky's part of the $2.6 billion venture that also includes an Indiana-led upriver bridge.
(Indiana is relying on its established "On the Job Training" program that apprentices women and minorities in construction fields, Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said in an email.)
Bridges to Opportunities involves a flow of money from state government to a state university and then back to a different arm of state government, according to records obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
Using the $1.9 million from the state Transportation Cabinet, KSU has created three administrative positions to oversee the program while awarding a $416,000 subcontract to the state Office of Employment and Training to handle the daily interaction with program participants.
Money for the program ultimately comes from federal transportation dollars that Kentucky officials say they have the discretion to spend, under U.S. law, on related job training and education.
It's common for large projects to include spending for historic preservation and other elements that aren't necessarily related to construction, said Chuck Wolfe, a Transportation Cabinet spokesman. Kentucky and Indiana, for instance, expect to spend $36 million during the bridges project to lessen the impacts on historic districts and properties, according to a 2012 financial plan.
Wolfe said Bridges to Opportunities is a "good use" of the federal funds.
"The bridges project is the first opportunity and it's the most obvious opportunity," he said. "As it happened the (construction) contract went to a union company, which had a greater pool of labor already to draw from. But we think this works out well."
In addition to the initial construction training, Bridges to Opportunities also allows bridges project funds to be used to pay tuition – up to $6,000 – for participants who enroll in an educational program at a technical school, community college, university or union. Redus said union dues are not covered.
Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, a libertarian think tank in Bowling Green, Ky., called the training program "wasteful" and said it's an example of federal money being used to "boost labor unions."
"It's misleading to say we're going to spend taxpayer money on the bridges and it's not related to that project," Waters said. "What you see is not really the way that it is."
Redus said Bridges to Opportunities staff is working with non-union subcontractors on the bridges project.
But J.R. Gaylor, president of the Kentucky/Indiana chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said the program hasn't been promoted in his sector of the construction industry, which includes non-union employers.
"That's a little curious, I guess, because only about 12 percent of construction workers in the state of Kentucky belong to a union," Gaylor said.
Joe Wise, business manager of the Greater Louisville Building and Construction Trades Council, which is affiliated with 15 unions, did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawrence Winburn Sr., business manager of Laborers International Union of North America Local 576, said his union has begun taking in apprentices referred from the program and placing them on jobs.
"I think the (Bridges to Opportunities) is going to be a good program," he said.
In all, 225 people are considered to be "active" in the Bridges to Opportunities program, though 100 of those are either no longer interested or haven't followed up, according to a status report obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act. That includes:
20 who were placed into construction apprenticeship programs
17 who have been hired, including 9 placed into a union job
69 who are no longer interested
31 who didn't follow up on a referral
72 who have "pending" statuses
Redus said one benefit of this program is to help Walsh Construction, the contractor on the downtown crossing, meet Kentucky's goals of having an overall workforce with 15 percent minority and 10 percent female workers. Those goals are currently being met, according to Walsh.
As of early January, 69 percent of the Bridges to Opportunities participants are black; 22 percent are women, according to an internal report.
Walidah Hinkle is one of the program's participants who said she has worked on the bridges project as a flagger for about three months. She said she was working for UPS but looking for a career change when she began researching job prospects in construction.
After enrolling in Bridges to Opportunities last year, Hinkle said she completed a weeklong training session and then contacted the Laborers International Union of North America Local 576, where she has been accepted into an apprentice program.
Hinkle said the training was beneficial.
"Actually going out there and watching the films and taking the tests and doing everything that they actually have you do – it gives you more insight of what's really going on," she said.
Despite the successes touted by Kentucky officials, Bridges to Opportunities administrators have failed to meet several requirements of the state contract.
KSU, working with the Bridges to Opportunities advisory board, was supposed to conduct a formal "needs assessment" of heavy highway construction jobs related to the bridges project by within 30 days of the contract being awarded -- or mid-March of last year.
That didn't happen.
Instead, Redus said, Kentucky, Indiana and Louisville officials appointed an advisory group of business, labor, education and government leaders to suggest ways to improve existing workforce training programs.
And the invoices from KSU to the state for Bridges to Opportunities expenses were "rejected and returned" to the university, according to documents obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act. Redus said KSU wasn't sending its invoices monthly, as the contract requires, and now must meet a Feb. 1 deadline to re-submit its bill.
KSU, despite first being contacted on Jan. 3 for this story, has not provided comment or made an official available for interview.
As for the $416,000 subcontract that KSU awarded to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training, Redus said it was "essential" for the staff who operate the state employment offices "to help us navigate this workforce training program."
The employment training office's budget includes $222,592 in salaries and benefits for eight employees working on Bridges to Opportunities. The $111,800 in miscellaneous expenses includes $75,000 for assessments.
The remaining $1.5 million is KSU's portion of the grant. While those invoices haven't been re-submitted, Redus said the university has filled three staff positions for the program.
"We are pleased with the performance of all our partners in terms of where this program is and where it started," she said. "We didn't have as much ramp-up time as we would have liked in terms of having this program in place before this project began – but I think we're in a good place."
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