S2,E12 - Ebony Farrow

Posted on June 26, 2024

TCNY_EP 12 Title Graphic_1600x900

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank, a semi-monthly podcast by CenterState CEO, Central New York's premier leadership and economic development organization. Join us as we meet the people and explore the projects driving the regional economy forward.

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, CenterState CEO's, director of communications and your host for Talk CNY. New infrastructure doesn't just appear, it requires a skilled workforce, so as Central New York grows we'll need more people in building trades careers in order to construct and maintain all that we'll need. And to grow equitably, we'll need that workforce to be representative of our entire community. Historically, women and people of color are underrepresented in the building trades, but if more people from these populations can access training and activate their potential, an entirely new talent pipeline could open up for the industry. Syracuse Build's Pathways to Apprenticeship program does just that by creating more access and exposure to careers in the building trades for people of color and women in the city of Syracuse. Ebony Farrow manages the Pathways to Apprenticeship program, and she joins me today on Talk CNY to discuss the program successes and its community impact. Ebony, thank you so much for being here today. We're really excited to have you on the show.

Thank you for the invite. It's a pleasure to be here.

So we're talking about Pathways to Apprenticeship today. I want to talk a little bit about before pathways for you. So what was your path to this role as the program manager for the program?

I grew up here in Syracuse, and I gathered into workforce development after I flunked out of college the first time and ended up going back, I'm not really sure what I wanted to do. Found out I had a knack for teaching and graduated with an architecture degree. So I started working with youth in the city and found that I really enjoyed that and eventually I found my way to Pathways to Apprenticeship through my knowledge of construction, and I also ran a youth build program.

Now, was construction something for you that was around when you were young or around your community when you were young? Was this a career path that you saw you or anyone else going into?

No, as we were growing up, we really didn't get access to knowledge around construction. It was like you can go to the Army, if you were really smart, you had an opportunity for college, or if you're an athlete, you had an opportunity for college, or you basically struggled to make ends meet. So when I graduated with my architecture degree, I kind of started to figure out that construction was a really easy path. It was an open market and not a lot of people knew about it. I wanted to do what I could to expose as many people from my community to the opportunity.

Now Pathways to Apprenticeship takes the traditional path to a career in the building trades and kind of removes some of the barriers. So can you describe to me what the traditional path is and how Pathways is breaking that down and making it more accessible?

So the traditional path is you find a union that you would be interested in doing. So let's just say plumbers for instance, because I'm a local 81 member and you apply to that apprenticeship. And there's a process depending on when you apply, there's an intake process, maybe you have to go through a test, an aptitude test, and then an interview process and all of that takes time. A lot of it, if you're not familiar with the terminology, if you're not familiar with what you're taking on the test, it might be a struggle for you to get in. Pathways to Apprenticeship essentially helps to assess whatever barriers you may have and helps to remove those barriers. So we do interview prep, we do career development where you're researching the actual union that you want to go into, so you start to learn those terminologies. We also do resume building. We work with tape measures. We do hands-on so that people get a real opportunity to work in the industry of construction if they haven't before. And then when they go for their interview, they have some real experience to speak to and if you already have experience, we just build upon that during the program.

Now you were instrumental in the development of Pathways to Apprenticeship. So what were some of the specific supports or skills that you knew had to be included in this program to make sure people could succeed and have flourishing careers?

So one of the things that we want to make sure is that we invited people of color, women, veterans, those who are traditionally marginalized into the program. Then we also wanted to build in a way of repairing driver's license. So it's one thing for someone to say, I know that I don't have a valid license. It's something different for a program to say, okay, we understand that. How do we remove the barrier including paying tickets, and fees. We work with a legal team to lift suspensions. We really go at it holistically so that the person at the end of the program has a true opportunity to start from an even playing field so they can be successful. Another one of the barriers was paying people for their time. We want to really value someone's time. If you're going to spend 11 weeks with us for about four and a half to five hours a day, then we want to make sure that you get paid for that time so you have some kind of supplemental income as you're scaling up or making a lateral move into a different career.

Now the Pathways to Apprenticeship program has been really successful. You've had over 100 graduates across six cohorts, I believe. So that's really exciting. And you're getting ready even more. What have been some of the highlights of the program for you? Are there moments that always stick out in your mind when you think of back on the program, how it's been so far?

Well, there are a couple of different moments. There was one moment where we had a participant who actually wanted to quit the program. He had custody of his 2-year-old son, and he really wanted to be a good father, but he couldn't find adequate babysitting. So he wanted to quit the program. The entire cohort. His cohort continued to call him until he came back and said, just bring your son with you. There were 21 people in the class and there's also me. So we said that we would protect his son while we're doing what we need to do for school and work, but just don't quit. And he ended up graduating from the program. And then there's another time where we had a graduate. Most recently, he's a cohort two graduate who introduced the president of the United States when he came here to introduce the Micron grant that they applied for.

The Chips and Science Act.

Yes. And that was absolutely awesome. He had his son there, he had his mother there. So there's him the graduate, and then there's the next generation, his son who's watching him introduce the president of the U.S. So that was pretty cool.

Now, can you describe what it's like for someone who maybe is working multiple jobs, just making ends meet and they kind of go from that into a full-time career that can support their family and the next generation beyond them?

Yeah. We've had a number of our graduates were in that situation where essentially they come to us and they say either during the interview process or our nurturing campaign process where we are basically trying to explain to them what this entails. This is going to be a hard shift. It's going to be a lot of work on your end. Are you sure you want to do it? And a lot of those folks say, listen, I am tired of working these nine to five dead-end jobs where I'm barely making it. I really want a career where I can support my family. And we've had a number of participants just say, thank you for the opportunity. They have been able to go on, go into their apprenticeships and they're successful now and success means something different to everybody, but they're successful where they're trying to go, and we have a number of them who are in their second year of their apprenticeship.

Now, historically, women and people of color are underrepresented in building trades' careers. Why is it so important that our building trades' workforce look like our entire community?

Because that is the focus that should be going on. When you have a career path for an industry that is only localized to a certain amount of people, you don't really get the full range of that industry's capacity because you don't have full representation. A lot of times what our construction partners talk to us about is that sometimes are much more detail oriented than men. So you get someone a little bit different that can bring a different perspective to that field, different specialty, just being naturally who they are.

We're going to take a quick break here. We're going to have more with Ebony shortly, but we have a word from our presenting sponsor, NBT Bank.

What I'm looking for in a bank is one that's looking out for me, like NBT. I want a relationship and a team that supports me and my dreams like NBT. And let's face it, life can get challenging. I need a bank that's focused on me. They've been rated tops in all the things that matter, like trust, customer service, and financial advice. So when I need a bank I can trust. It's always NBT and me.

Welcome back to Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, CenterState CEO's, director of communications, and I'm here today with Ebony Farrow, program manager of Pathways to Apprenticeship. Ebony, thank you for being here with us today.


So we've been talking about Pathways and the participants, people who have gone on to start really great careers out of this, but a major part of this success is also working directly with the unions and employer partners. So can you tell me a little bit about how those employer partners have taken steps to make this industry more accessible and make their training more adaptable to all different populations of people?

Absolutely. Our union partners are fantastic. When we first journeyed down this road, we went and we interviewed them, talked to them about what they were looking for from their apprentices, and then how we would be able to help supply that labor force. And from there we developed this program called Pathways to Apprenticeship, but they actually come into the classroom and teach pieces of the curriculum. So it helps to break down that barrier that is currently a mistrust barrier between the public and the unions themselves. And the participants get the opportunity to ask real questions and get real-time responses from those who are actually in the field. And that's something that our union partners want to do. It's not something that we've had to beg them to do or struggle with them. They enjoy that relationship that they have inside the classroom with the participants as well as recruiting. We are a part of the stakeholders that are representing the community, and so our union partners have leaned upon us to help them recruit from the public to make sure they get a great diversity in applicants.

Now, this is a new-ish undertaking for unions and employer partners. I'm sure before this they were not teaching or they were not being active in a recruiting process like this. So what have you heard from them about this process? Anything to share that they have shared with you about certain things that have opened their eyes to different, maybe barriers in their industry or even just about new opportunities for their own careers?

So I can share a story. We had a union partner who came in and we do a lot of, how do I put it, career development that also acknowledges the culture diversity or lack thereof on the union side. And so we were having a really candid conversation with the participants in the union partner stayed for the conversation because class ends at eight o'clock at night. He stayed for the conversation. At the end of the conversation, he shared that at first he wasn't really sure what to expect, but after that conversation it became political. He said that a lot of participants share his same view on politics and he wasn't really prepared for that. He didn't know what to expect. And it wasn't to be disrespectful on either end. He was just really appreciative that he stayed and seeing that he could have conversations with folks who were from different backgrounds but shared the same political views as he did. And there were some who disagreed and that was welcomed as well. It was a safe space to have those conversations. But those are some of the things that happen in real time when Pathways is taking place.

Now, like any industry, the building trades are also not static. So things changed throughout, the skills needed and what you all need to do. So how has Pathways to Apprenticeship adapted throughout the course of its cohorts in order to meet the needs of this industry?

So we are currently building in more certifications so that those who are coming out of the Pathways program have even a better leg up to get into the unions depending on which union they want to go to. So for instance, instead of just doing an OSHA 10, we're not going to ramp up and do an OSHA 30 so that when they go into their union apprenticeship, they don't actually have to take that over. And if they need to be sent out to a job that requires it, they can be sent out even faster coming in with it.

Just to maybe even back up, I mean, for someone who's listening and not familiar with the union process, I mean, can you tell me a little bit about what it's like to enter a union and all of the different qualifications and skills you need in order to be successful?

Yes. So the union requires that you are age 18 minimum. You're able to work in the U.S., have a high school diploma or equivalency, and are willing to work in an industry of construction. I paused there because it's really important for people to understand that this is hard labor. This is not sitting behind a desk, although that can be difficult as well on your body, but this is like carrying 50 loads upstairs, bending over for eight hours a day, dirty. It's hot. The building isn't built yet, so there's no AC. So this is tough labor. So your willingness to actually work in different environments and then be teachable because you're taught by different people in the industry. So your ability to take criticism and be able to shift and move is going to be important.

And then once someone goes through Pathways to Apprenticeship, what is kind of their next step after they graduate or anyone who's entering a building trade industry.

Got you. So during the program, we have our participants apply during program. So we can walk through the application process and it cuts down on the delay between graduation from pathways and indentureship into their union. So once you get the application in, you can either be interviewed or there might be an aptitude test of some sort. It could be a performance test, it could be an academic test. And then you interview. From that point, you're ranked on a ranking list, and let's say you're ranked number 10, you may get accepted into your union faster than if you're ranked number 20. And so once that happens, you get an acceptance letter, you sign your indentureship papers, and now you're put onto a list to be able to be sent out to work. So depending on what work is available, depends on how fast you get sent out to their actual job. And then there's also an instructional component to your apprenticeship where you're learning inside the classroom.

So there's a lot going on for both participants and for unions to create this workforce. And for anyone driving around Central New York right now, I'm sure that they can see there's a lot of construction work going on. How do you see Pathways to Apprenticeship playing a role in our growing future? I mean, to build up this workforce that we'll definitely need.

So Pathways to Apprenticeship is looking to expand. Currently, we're taking on classes of 30. Soon we would like to run two Pathways programs simultaneously. So we have about 60, but we're looking to help bring the community to the front door of the union so that they can then bring them on as apprentices and as journey people to make a much more diverse and robust industry. Along with all of the work that's happening. The unions themselves need to increase their own capacity. So Pathways is helping to build out other pre-apprenticeship programs to assist with that, not just here in Onondaga County, but in a couple of other counties as well.

So can you expand on that a little bit more about the growing programs that you have coming down the pipe?

Yep. For example, we have Oswego Pathways coming, and we also have Tompkins Pathways coming as well.

You're growing a lot, and this is not just one of construction that you are teaching and giving people the skills to do. Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of skills and trade unions people who graduate from Pathways to Apprenticeship can enter?

Yeah, so we have our IBW partners, which are our electricians, plumbers, local 81. We have operating engineers, painters, bricklayers, our ironworker partners. Then we also have our carpenters and our roofers, and then we just added onto our team the sheet metal workers and our looking to bring on the insulators.

Wow. Yes. So that is a lot of options for people going into Pathways to Apprenticeship. Do you find that people often are excited to choose which one to enter?

Yes. A lot of times people have gotten some form of knowledge, either from a billboard or maybe radio regarding the electricians or the carpenters, just because they've kind of seen that around. But then to see that there are at least 16 different options to choose from, and nine of them are working directly with Pathways. A lot of people are really excited about their options. They didn't know that there were so many different options and specialties in construction. Generally, it's just I want to work in construction.

This is a lot of partners, a lot of people, so a lot of work. It's exciting, but a lot of work. So what keeps you excited about being the Pathways to Apprenticeship manager?

The variety. The excitement around meeting new people, doing my part to essentially help as I can help to remove barriers, give people a different perspective on how to see things or how to deal with different crises. It is a very dynamic career choice for me, and I absolutely love it. Plus these success stories at the end. People who graduate from the program, when I can see them out in the community and I see them with their shirts on from their unions, or they call me and let me know that they're moving into their next year of their apprenticeship, or I've gotten pictures of people working on the money building all the way up at the top where you see the star. They're taking pictures from up there because they have these opportunities to do these different things. So those things keep me excited about the work.

Well, Ebony, thank you so much, and best of luck with all that you are doing in the future as

well. Thank you. I appreciate it.

CenterState CEO's podcast Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank is available on clickcny.com and all major podcast platforms. After each episode, you can join us on Click, where we'll continue to talk about this topic and provide additional resources and links. In Clik. You can listen to or watch every episode of Talk CNY. Click is CenterState CEO's digital chamber platform, where our members connect, learn, and receive from our staff. For new episode reminders, be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast listening app. If you're enjoying Talk CNY, consider leaving a quick review or a five-star rating.

Talk CNY Main Series Transcripts