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D.C. Infrastructure Academy: An Essential Pipeline for Career-Building

After months of training and interviews, Southeast resident Roshia Adams said she’s well on her way to obtaining a job as a laborer that will place her on a path to eventually becoming a compliance safety and health officer.

Adams, a veteran with experience in communications and construction, lost her job during the pandemic. With encouragement from her counselor at the Department of Veteran Affairs, she enrolled in the D.C. Infrastructure Academy (DCIA).

For more than two months, she and nearly a dozen other Black DCIA enrollees learned the basics of pipeline installation under the auspices of Washington Gas contractors.

The Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) certification portion of the course took place online, while participants conducted onsite work and professional development at the DCIA headquarters on Pomeroy Road in Southeast.

Since Washington Gas partnered with DCIA three years ago, nearly 30 people, including Adams, have graduated from the academy. They’ve done so after receiving hands-on training and gaining expertise about energy and the city’s underground pipelines.

Despite the pandemic, Washington Gas has been able to continue along this trajectory.

The utility company’s next DCIA graduation ceremony has been scheduled to take place at the D.C. Wharf on Aug. 11. The newly minted cohort will join Adams and her peers in, most likely, replacing a workforce that’s quickly approaching retirement age.

“I realized the D.C. Infrastructure Academy gives me an opportunity to help rebuild my city,” said Adams, 40.

“I live here and I see other workers. They definitely don’t look like me. They’re older white men coming to fix your gas lines. They don’t live here, but I do. Why can’t I fix my own city? I think they should have more programs [like this] to uplift ourselves and our city.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS DURING THE PANDEMIC

DCIA, in existence since 2018, grew out of the Bowser administration’s desire to develop a viable workforce in energy, construction and information technology fields,the nation’s fastest growing industries.

The ultimate goal of DCIA centers on increasing the marketability of District residents in search of employment opportunities in the infrastructure arena.

To carry out this mission, DCIA partners with the Department of Employment Services (DOES)’ Office of Talent and Client Services, along with local employers, to provide training and experience to District residents.

Training targets basic construction skills and longer programs done in conjunction with Pepco, Washington Gas, and Solar Works DC This arrangement also enables DCIA participants to develop as professionals in mock interviews, targeted hiring fairs, and individual placement services.

The Bowser administration and its private partners have dedicated more than $22 million to this cause. DCIA didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about the racial and gender composition of DCIA participants and graduates, or how many have since received and maintained infrastructure jobs.

A month into the pandemic, when DCIA started offering hybrid instruction, the national unemployment rate reached levels not seen since the 1970s. By the end of 2020, the District’s year-to-date unemployment rate stood at two percentage points higher than what government officials recorded for 2019.

While COVID-19 significantly decimated the hospitality, retail, transportation, and travel industries, the infrastructure industry, particularly the energy sector, remained resilient. DCIA officials, in meetings with its three advisory committees, reported seeing an uptick in demand for services related to energy/utilities, construction, and information technology.

These developments, in turn, compelled DCIA to maintain its programming.

In adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines, DCIA split its cohorts into two groups that alternated between online and in-person instruction during the day. No more than 10 students occupied a single room at the academy on Pomeroy Road

In its partnership with DCIA, Pepco led nearly 30 District residents through the academy during the pandemic.

When not engaged in online coursework, students converged on Pomeroy Road where instructors showed them how to climb utility poles and walked them through the intricacies of the meter and transformer shops.

By September of this year, 40 DCIA participants, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, are slated to graduate through Pepco.

In total, Pepco has facilitated the development of 85 DCIA graduates since DCIA’s inception. Kelly DeCurtis, director of talent at Pepco, said they have all secured employment within the utility company, partner contractors of choice, or an industry organization.

“We want to ensure we’re employing the people in our communities, so it’s been positive for Pepco,” DeCurtis said as she explained Pepco’s strategy in helping its DCIA participants establish successful careers.

“We’re diversifying the pipeline of individuals coming in and spending 30 years with the company,” DeCurtis continued.

“These are life-sustaining jobs. To make sure our cohorts coming in are successful, we have regular mentoring sessions [so] they’re successful and have partners within the organization.”

IS IT ENOUGH? 

This spring, DOES reported a local unemployment rate of 7.8 percent — a decrease of less than a percentage point from figures collected a month prior.

Though lower than the rate reported last year, unemployment in the D.C. metropolitan region has been steadily rising again. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that, between May and June, the regional unemployment rate jumped nearly one percentage point.

Amid the pandemic, education advocates have raised the question about the degree to which District residents, particularly young people, are prepared for careers in technologically advanced fields.

For instance, Charles Boston, a one-time State Board of Education candidate, introduced a ballot measure that would compel the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to include and expand vocational programs at all public and public charter schools.

The D.C. Board of Elections would later strike down that measure on the grounds that it violated aspects of the D.C. Home Rule Act.

District residents 18 years and older can participate in DCIA once they attend an information session, fill out an application to express interest in a career pathway, and take the CASAS test.

Applicants unable to show their math and reading proficiency on the CASAS have the option of enrolling in a remediation class.

To raise awareness about DCIA, the academy works in conjunction with DOES’ public affairs team to produce email and text blasts, social media flyers and robocalls.

Before the pandemic, DCIA representatives also attended ANC and church meetings, and collaborated with local organizations to host information sessions across the city. Other strategies include referrals via DOES’ American Job Centers.

Naomi Hawk’s introduction to DCIA happened in 2018 when the United Black Workers Center told her about solar panel installation courses that Solar Works DC hosted at the academy.

At the time, Hawk suffered unemployment and instability for nearly two years after leaving what she described as a racially turbulent environment in the U.S. National Park Service.

Upon completing the course, Hawk landed a job with New Columbia Solar and would later return to DCIA to teach others the skills she acquired.

She said this career path has inspired dreams of one day teaching female returning citizens, launching a solar panel company of her own, and documenting Black industry workers through photography.

Meanwhile, Hawk said she continues to struggle to make ends meet, even with a substantial increase in her income. Though she remains grateful for DCIA, she questions how the program could be more accessible to those with the greatest need.

“This city is still expensive for no reason,” said Hawk, a 29-year-old D.C. resident who moved to Northeast two years after living in Southeast for most of her life. “It’s a double-edged sword.

“Sometimes the language isn’t accessible and people will have a hard time understanding it’s for them,” said Hawk. “You got people who know but aren’t doing anything about it. Hell, I didn’t know anything about the D.C. Infrastructure Academy until I started at Solar Works DC. That’s when I found out there were more things you could do.”

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