Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez went to one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods Monday to announce a new hiring program for the construction industry, highlighting a theme of shared prosperity as he gears up for a reelection bid.
“The cranes are back. There is another boom in construction in our county,” Gimenez told an overwhelmingly black crowd gathered at Liberty City’s D.A. Dorsey training center for the unveiling of Employ Miami-Dade. “The workforces on those sites should be representative of our community. That hasn’t always been the case.”
Though Gimenez touted the effort as “one of the most important initiatives in Miami-Dade County history,” the new program has no county funding. Instead, it relies on an established nonprofit, Neighbors and Neighbors Association, to work with a construction trade group, Associated Builders and Contractors, to place people in training programs. Participants then could find work through Florida’s unemployment agency, which has an extensive network for matching the unemployed with job openings, or through contractors allied with the program.
Organizers of the initiative said it presents a promising combination of a grass-roots community group with strong ties to Miami’s low-income black population with the mayor’s ability to lean on developers and other large employers to hire participants.
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“It wouldn’t have happened without the mayor forcing us all to come together and figure this out,” said Peter Dyga, president of the southeast branch of ABC, a Washington-based group that lobbies for the construction industry.
Barron Channer, one of the developers behind Miami’s Overtown Gateway project, which is in line for $6 million in county funding, said his group will be participating in the program. He said more African-American residents don’t land construction jobs because many builders don’t have natural connections with that community.
The construction industry “is dominated by small and medium-sized businesses, who reflexively hire people they know,” he said.
Teri Williams, president of OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the country, presented a $10,000 check to the effort, which will fund $250 biweekly stipends to participants of a six-week construction program. “It’s so they can afford to be trained,” Williams said. She said outreach efforts will be crucial to success, since recruitment can be a challenge.
“There is a need to build trust,” she said. “In the economic recession, there was a breakdown in trust between minority communities and institutions, including banks.”
The hiring program comes as Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, continues to highlight causes that appeal to traditional Democratic voters.
He began 2014 demanding pay concessions from the county’s unionized workers and proposing an austerity budget, but ended it finding temporary revenue fixes to avoid most of the spending cuts. He recently conducted a round of national interviews on his proposal to equip Miami-Dade police with body cameras as a way to address the racial divide that exists nationwide between minorities and law enforcement. Earlier this year, he hired a former Obama operative, Michael Hernández, as his communications chief and briefly flirted with leaving the GOP to run for reelection as an independent.
Gimenez recently said he would stay with the Republican Party, but also emphasized his commitment to a centrist approach to local government. In an Op/Ed in the Miami Times touting Employ Miami-Dade, he recalled a recent White House trip where the program “was received with great interest from several advisers to President Obama.”
On Monday, Gimenez evoked his first mayoral campaign in 2011, and how some misread what he sees as a big-tent approach to the office.
“Where will Mayor Gimenez focus his efforts as the ‘strong mayor’ of Miami-Dade?” Gimenez told the audience of about 300 people. “Here’s the problem with that line of thinking, ladies and gentlemen: It ignores the fact that I was elected mayor for all of Miami-Dade County.”
Employ Miami-Dade is starting with two ZIP Codes, 33142 and 33147, in the largely black neighborhoods of Brownsville and West Little River. It eventually would target 16 low-income ZIP Codes throughout the county, according to a summary provided by the administration, and would expand its focus to placing participants in jobs needed to run completed projects, such as security guards for an office tower or clerks for a new hotel.
Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate of 6.4 percent in October was the sixth-highest among Florida’s metropolitan areas, though its job-growth rate of 3.5 percent tied Orlando for fourth-highest, as well. Gimenez is targeting the construction industry for hires, citing the resurgence of high-rise ventures and noting how some builders are looking beyond Miami-Dade to fill payroll slots.
Miguel Aragon, an organizer for a construction-workers union, Laborers International, said his group has trouble competing with labor brokers who can provide construction sites with immigrant workers at low hourly rates. As contract employees, the arrangement also frees builders from paying employment taxes and worrying about healthcare regulations.
“It’s a big business here in Miami-Dade,” Aragon said while waiting for the Gimenez speech. “We’ve got more construction work than almost anywhere in the entire country.”
In a classroom after Gimenez’s speech, about two dozen men in their teens and early 20s gathered for a graduation ceremony after finishing a one-week ABC placement program. Participants received certificates for federal workplace-safety guidelines needed at construction sites, and also underwent drug tests — steps that organizers said would put their names at the top of a list for builders seeking entry-level workers. As he tried on a hard hat that came with his ABC diploma, Leroy Gissendanner said the course inspired him.
“I see myself running a business in construction,” the 23-year-old Miami Gardens resident said. “Construction plumbing, welding, electric — there’s so much out there.”
This is Gimenez’s fourth year in office, and his first major jobs initiatives comes as the county is seeing a steady drop in its unemployment rate amid a broad economic recovery. Payroll employment hit a record 1.1 million in Miami-Dade in October, and early 2014 saw the county erase job losses suffered during the downturn. When Gimenez took office in 2011, payroll growth was just beginning a comeback that was mostly uninterrupted during his tenure, according to federal labor statistics.
The No. 1 anchor on hiring remains the local public sector, which in October counted 1,200 fewer payroll positions than it had a year earlier. Under Gimenez, Miami-Dade County’s full-time payroll dropped about 8 percent through 2014 as his administration shifts more county workers to part-time positions.
Gimenez told Monday’s crowd it was time for Miami-Dade to take a leading position in boosting local hiring by the private sector.
“Simply, it’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “And it’s about time we do it.”