Building hope through job training

Cordera Tate graduated from the program in 2021. He says Revolution Workshop is "like family."

Photo By Larry Adams, Woodworking Network

Design Table
A conference table designed and built by Revolution Workshop for a corporate client.

The Revolution Workshop helps build skills, hope, and resilience in two of Chicago’s most underserved communities through construction and woodworking training, and through job creation.

Being trained for a job is a good thing, it will help pay the bills. But training for a career can lead to a brighter future for the student and their families.

A Chicago-based nonprofit is trying to bring that training to some disadvantaged residents while offering them more than a paycheck, but also a career.

Revolution Workshop is a nonprofit social enterprise that, since its founding in 2017, has provided construction workforce development for unemployed or underemployed people in partnership with area businesses. 

Now, the program is growing in footprint and training opportunities. Traditionally, it trained workers in construction; it has expanded to now include woodworking, historic preservation, and more.

The importance of training
Job training can be a critical tool in improving the economic lot for residents in often overlooked neighborhoods. This is especially true for people of color. 

In Chicago, the unemployment rate for Black residents aged 20 to 24 is a staggering 37 percent, according to Allison Perkins-Thomas, director of development. For women of color, that number is even higher.
This potential workforce did not go unnoticed by local employers who had the problem in reverse. They could not find enough skilled workers.

Two workers cut a board to size for a construction project.


A small group of skilled trades employers and workforce development leaders wanted to provide opportunities for communities of color and to alleviate the acute talent shortage in the construction sector. They founded Revolution Workshop in 2017 to develop a pipeline of trained workers by providing free training. 

The program seems to be working. Graduation rates are 83.5 percent and 88 percent were placed in jobs at an average starting wage of $19.60. Of the workers, 70 percent are retained at 6 months.

The program is run out of two locations, both in areas of the city with high unemployment among younger members of the Black and Brown communities, especially women. One of the locations is on the west side of Chicago in the East Garfield Park neighborhood and the second is in the historic Pullman/Roseland neighborhood. 

Each year, Revolution Workshop runs multiple cohorts per year at its locations. Currently, it runs three 12-week sessions at both locations for a total of six per year. The cohorts typically range from 20 to 30 students, said Perkin-Thomas.
 

Joseph Jaeger
Joseph Jaeger

The first two weeks of a session involve classroom instruction before getting into the lab to begin learning construction techniques by building a small structure. Students work in pairs to frame, roof, build stairs, install plumbing and electrical wiring, paint, and do construction chores. 

“Many of these kids have never seen a hammer, never seen a 2x4, never worked with tools,” said Joseph Jaeger, social enterprise director. “So, in 12 weeks we have taken them from introducing them to this world to building a house.” 

The students start at 7 a.m. and finish at 4 p.m. They are given a $50-a-week stipend and receive hard hats, boots, a vest, and tools. 

A revolutionary mission
Jackie Gallo, senior program director, said “Revolution has the mission to help Black, Brown, and women get into the construction industry. 

“The industry is unique because you don’t need a GED. You can have a felony on your record. You don’t need college debt. Yet, you still can get a career making six figures.”

Brittany Cooper, for instance, was a member of the 2014 cohort who joined the program at a relative’s urging. 
The young Black woman had taught herself some carpentry before joining the program but wanted more.  In Chicago, that can be a challenge for women of color. 

According to a June 26, 2023, report in Crain’s Chicago Business, the unemployment rate for Black women aged 20-24 rose from 32 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2021.

“I was already doing carpentry on my own, and I thought, ‘hey, why not do the program and make this a career and start making some real money.”

After graduation, she worked for an outside firm and eventually became a full-time employee at Revolution Workshop.“Now,” sh e said, “I am a project coordinator doing scheduling, working on quoting estimates, communicating with customers. Just trying to make sure everything runs smoothly.” 

But, reaching that salary goal does not come automatically. It takes time and the industry has its ups and downs. The construction industry can be cyclical, jobs may shut down and projects end, and the original starting salary might not be enough to carry them through to the next paycheck. That is where the social enterprise aspect of the program comes into play. 

At Revolution Workshop, the graduates are not just alumni of the program, they can come back for additional training, earn a little money, and take advantage of the program’s services.

“Now when people have these gaps between projects, they can come in here and work in our shop and they can gain more technical skills as they, build tables and cutting boards and desks,” said Gallo. “They have a space to go to, a way to get their car note paid, get their rent paid, so that when their construction company employer calls them back, they are ready to go, and they can keep advancing their career.”

Life also can present challenges unrelated to an industry’s ups and downs. Cordera Tate, for instance, graduated in 2021 and after graduation worked as a finish carpenter.

“I did that for two years, but I had a couple of life problems going on so I came back to Revolution,” he said. “Revolution is a great thing. It is like a family.” 

A growing ‘revolution’
In addition to the new facility in Pullman, the shop is adding to the woodworking training capabilities, said Jaeger, who heads up the woodworking program.  

Live edge boards for a table ordered by a corporate client are delivered to the shop.


Jaeger, whose background is in millwork and is AWI certified, said that woodworking is like the construction industry with an aging workforce and lack of trained workers. 

To develop the program, Jaeger has reached out to the Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) and his woodworking network to “show them what we’re doing here and to get their advice on how best to ‘get the kids’ interested in working in woodworking.” 

Jaeger also is building up the inventory of woodworking equipment. He has added machinery and plans to include more. Eventually, he wants the students to have experience on a variety of equipment including radial arm saws, table saws, miter saws, shapers, moulder, joiners, and widebelt sanders.
 

Orlando Cabrales
Orlando Cabrales

“If we get the students used to working on these machines, it helps them get a job in the woodworking industry.” 
A recent student is Orlando Cabrales, an alumni and current social enterprise project lead, who graduated in April 2023 and dreams of working in the furniture or cabinet industry. 

“My main goal is to learn how to build things,” he said. “I want to have something to pass down to my children — I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old — and I want them to grow up knowing how to do something for themselves and not be stuck in a dead-end job that doesn’t go anywhere.” 

For more on the program, visit  revolutionworkshop.org.  ✚

 

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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).