This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At a time when School District officials are promising a surge of repairs for Philadelphia’s aging school buildings, more than 100 prospective workers turned out at the District’s latest skilled-trades job fair, held Wednesday evening at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia.
“We definitely got a good turnout,” said the District’s director of recruitment, Sara Metzger. “There’s a lot of really excited folks here.”
The Dobbins fair drew a total of 132 job seekers – about three times as many as District officials had expected. “We got 80 RSVPs, so normally from that, we would expect 40 or 50 people,” said District recruiter Nikia Sterling.
The hiring surge comes as the District prepares to borrow half a billion dollars to invest in facilities that are in potentially dangerous conditions due to years of bare-bones maintenance. District leaders have said that they plan to rely on expanded staff and contractors to handle asbestos remediation and other facilities repairs.
District recruiters say the high turnout is a good sign for school communities waiting for repairs on aging and contaminated buildings. The District has hundreds of openings for various maintenance and repair staff, including about 180 jobs in cleaning up asbestos. Qualified attendees from Wednesday’s fair could find themselves on the job in a matter of weeks.
School District recruiter Kenneth Moore (right) talks with a pair of job seekers. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
However, the challenge of finding fully qualified candidates remains a difficult one, especially for the District’s more technically demanding jobs, such as HVAC maintenance and toxin remediation. Recruiters expect that just a fraction of Wednesday’s applicants will end up on the District payroll.
“What I really want to do is get them in the buildings, get them learning from people who already do it,” said District recruiter Kenneth Moore, who helped organize Wednesday’s event.
And those who make it through the process will find themselves in stable, rewarding positions, Moore said – something he believes helps students as well as adults. When young people see their neighbors working in their schools and reaping the rewards, that encourages them to stick with education and avoid the lure of the streets, Moore said.
“They say that good schools make a strong community, but I like to think of it the other way – a strong community makes good schools,” said Moore.
The job-seekers who turned up at Dobbins took basic written tests for positions in plumbing, painting, electrical, asbestos cleanup, and HVAC (heating and air conditioning). Qualified candidates will be invited back to take hands-on tests to assess their technical skills.
At the information table for HVAC positions, electrician John Parker told applicants that the job calls not only for proven technical abilities, but also for deep reserves of patience and problem-solving skills.
“The District needs HVAC mechanics desperately,” Parker said as a small cluster of applicants listened. “But the equipment ranges from 100 years old to two days old, and our mechanics have to be able to cover it all. Sometimes, there isn’t even a wiring diagram, because somebody lost it 10 years ago.”
In that case, he went on, mechanics have to crack open the machinery and figure it out on their own, on the spot.
“If you can do that, sign up for the job,” Parker said. “Come join us if you’re ready, but I’m just telling you what you’re up against.”
Listening was Marquiss Billups, a student at Orleans Technical College in Northeast Philadelphia who hopes for a career in HVAC maintenance. Billups was disappointed to find that even with his technical degree, he’ll fall short of the District’s requirements, which call for several years of on-the-job experience.
“I was hoping they weren’t too many requirements about practical experience,” Billups said. “I was hoping it would be more like a chance to develop your skills. … What was the point of coming?”
But despite some frustration, Billups said he was also glad to learn more about his long-term career options. And he appreciated Parker’s honesty about the demands of the work.
“The guy was right – you don’t want to show up at the job and not know what you’re doing,” he said.
“Especially at a school,” added Billups’ friend, Brandon Crews. “You’re working for the people.”
Crews, also a student at Orleans, was sorry to learn that working for the District isn’t an immediate option, but like Billups, he found a silver lining.
“Now that I’ve learned about this opportunity, maybe in a couple of years, when I have some experience, I can come back,” he said.
Parker said it’s not unusual to meet young people like Billups and Crews – willing and able, but not yet fully ready.
“A lot of candidates, when they get out of school, they think they’re ready, but what they lack is practical experience,” he said.
Besides needing strong technical skills, he said, District workers also need to be able to work closely alongside educators and students in an environment that can range from unpredictable to chaotic. Those kinds of skills can’t be learned in a classroom, he said.
“The School District workload is unlike anything they’ve ever encountered,” Parker said.
The District has a small number of apprenticeship spots available for HVAC mechanics and other facilities positions. Parker told the job applicants that the starting pay for those spots is about $14,000 a year. Recruiters said that the District may consider expanding these programs, but nothing is official at this point.
More fairs to come
The District’s Sara Metzger said that for a skilled-trades fair like this, “If 10% are qualified, that would be great.”
The turnout included students from local career academies, experienced union workers, and a few walk-ins worried by recent reports of asbestos in Philadelphia school buildings.
“I heard a couple of people say, ‘I really just want to help the District,’” Metzger said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t have the experience we need.”
Metzger said the District hasn’t yet scheduled its next skilled-trades fair, but it is considering running them monthly as the District’s hiring push continues. “We might do more specialized fairs,” she added, to address needs in specific areas.
She linked the high attendance to her team’s publicity push, which relied heavily on social media and outreach to technical schools. Superintendent William Hite’s administration has helped the recruitment team clear its decks of other concerns, allowing Metzger to concentrate her staff’s work on facilities hires for the time being.
She thinks that this isn’t a bad time of year to offer people well-paid work. “People are looking at their holiday bills and thinking, ‘I really could use another job,’” Metzger said with a smile.
And as for Billups and Crews, although a District job might not be around the corner, they said they would take the tests and see what happens. Meanwhile, they both learned a few things from their talk with Parker; some of the technical challenges he described hadn’t been covered in their classes at Orleans.
Said Crews: “This is going to make me go back and look up stuff I never would have known about.”
Added Billups: “I’m going to go home and look at YouTube.”