HARTFORD, Conn. — Warren Wells talks about Dunkin’ Donuts Park as if he owns it.
He spent four months there ahead of the Yard Goats’ opening day – after “everything got screwed up and we had to fix it,” he clarifies, with a laugh.
On a recent stroll through the park, he points out landmarks. He hung plasterboard in the press box office over there, framed the door for that office, put up ceiling tiles in that concession stand.
“This is going to be part of history, I can tell my kids about that one day,” Wells said. “I’m just proud. I got to see the process of it going up. I was a part of this thing, this building in my city.”
A year and a half ago, Wells, 26, couldn’t read a tape measure. Now, he’s an apprentice carpenter with Local 43 and has left his mark on landmark projects in his hometown, including the Yard Goats’ home and UConn’s new downtown campus.
He owes it all to Capital City YouthBuild, a federally funded program offered through the Community Renewal Team. For nearly a decade, YouthBuild has provided technical training for city youth living in poverty.
In a year, the applicants receive full certification in construction, food service or health care, earning their GEDs along the way.
Just under 600 have graduated from the Hartford chapter in its nine years of existence, with an 80 percent job-placement rate. They’ve found jobs as nurses, chefs and, of course, carpenters.
But among the graduates, only seven have been voted into Local 43, according to Frank Mangiagli, the program’s construction trainer.
It was clear from the beginning that Wells would make the cut for a union gig.
“I saw it right away. He always showed up on time, he was respectful,” Mangiagli said recently inside YouthBuild’s workshop on Windsor Street. “He was a little unsure of himself in the beginning, but I told him he could do it, that he could succeed with this career.”
At the time, Wells needed the boost. He was working security at Novitex in Windsor, finally finding some stability after a string of dead-end jobs. Warehouses, retail outlets, even a cable company gig that “didn’t pan out.”
College hadn’t worked out for him: After graduating from Pathways Academy of Technology and Design, he did a year at Mount Ida, a small liberal-arts institution in Newton, Mass., before being kicked out.
He found himself back in Hartford, splitting time between living with his mom and grandmother. He tries to take care of them, ever since his uncle Leonard Lindsay was gunned down in the North End in 2002.
“My life wasn’t going anywhere, and I wasn’t happy,” he said. “And my mom always said, ‘Eventually, you’ll have to take care of yourself.’ I knew I had to find something that was going to support me and improve my life.”
In fall 2015, one of his co-workers at Novitex told him about YouthBuild.
“She told me, ‘You don’t look like you want to do this the rest of your life,'” Wells said. “And she was correct. I had nothing to lose in giving it a try.”
He enrolled a month later, barely squeezing into the eligible age bracket at 24. It wasn’t the only thing that set him apart from his peers: He had a high school diploma, a driver’s license and car.
He hit the ground running, Mangiagli said. And in a program like YouthBuild, that’s a benefit.
“This is more than just how to use tools,” Mangiagli said. “It’s shaking them out of their core, changing their behavior. When you get out there, on the job site, it’s regimented. I try to give them the same experiences I had as an apprentice.”
Mental toughness is a frequent topic. Learning how to speak up, not be timid when interacting on a job site.
Mangiagli gives direction like a contractor manning a multimillion dollar project. “If I tell you to grab something, don’t just look at it, grab it! Act like I’m paying you $60 an hour.”
As tough as he is on them, Mangiagli is sensitive to the challenges they face. Most have been touched by street violence in some form. Some have even been killed while attending the program, he said.
But he does the work to show them the importance of learning a trade.
“If every city had a program like this, we could end poverty in a generation,” he said. “You give them the means to support themselves, instead of relying on something illegal. It’s an investment.
“But, if you incarcerate them, you’re spending way more money, and if they go on public assistance, you’re spending exponentially more,” he added.
As the training begins, a lot of the students get frustrated at little failures. Mangiagli guides them, with the patience of someone who’s worked the trade for 30 years.
“It’s all about building their confidence,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is getting them to recognize that they are better than what they think they are. And, hey, that was a challenge for me, and I’m 54.”
Other lessons hit home immediately. Like the definition of “annuity” and “compound interest.” Mangiagli shows them his union pay stub, to drive the point home.
“They’re dumbfounded,” he said. “They can’t believe they can make that kind of salary if they stick with this career.”
It’s the carrot he dangles, he explains, to set them on the right path. It worked for Wells, pushing over his initial uncertainties.
“It got my attention, for sure,” he said. “But after I started learning so much from Frank, I realized the numbers weren’t the whole point of me being there.
“With a career, I could make my own life better, but I could also help out my mom and grandmom, keep my brother on the right track. Be a family man and look after everybody.”
After finishing YouthBuild in April 2016, Wells took the union exam. He failed the first time, awash in disappointment. But with a little intensive tutoring with Mangiagli, he aced the test his second time.
The high score comes with the “enormous benefits” of the union, Mangiagli said: a higher wage, paid health care and a pension.
And since joining the union’s ranks, Wells has been receiving glowing reviews, according to Mark Okun, the business agent for Local 43.
“We’ll get kids out of high school, people who will join us and tell us it’s too fast paced or too hard and go back to nonunion world,” Okun said. “He’s one of the kids that joined and stood out above the rest.”
Okun extolled the value of programs like YouthBuild, pipelines for inner-city youth to get sustainable careers.
He noted that Dunkin’ Donuts Park had a workforce of 40 percent Hartford residents, including a sizable chunk of apprentices like Wells, as stipulated by the project’s labor agreement.
At the same time, he implored both the state and the city to keep the local labor clauses in those agreements, especially as they continue to support training in the trades.
“I don’t care if they’re union or nonunion, I want them to work and support themselves,” Okun said. “The level these kids are at, it gives them the opportunity to participate in a career, pull them out of whatever poverty they’re in.”
Wells certainly sees the value in these programs. How else would he have been able to hammer nails into a Hartford landmark?
He wants word to spread about YouthBuild, something he hadn’t heard of until that co-worker’s suggestion.
“There’s a problem in Hartford, with the youth, and programs like this can be a relief for the community,” he said. “These kids need an opportunity, a chance to succeed, and that’s exactly what you get with YouthBuild.”
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com