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Charlottesville trains workforce to fill construction needs
GO Skilled Trades Academy graduation, February 2018
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Credit: Mujtaba Mohammad Asif
Hollie Lee (left to right), Mujtaba Mohammad Asif, Cathy Stapleton, and Cory Demchak pose with City Councilor Kathy Galvin at the graduation of the pilot Growing Opportunity Skilled Trades Academy.
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Emily Hays | Friday, June 01, 2018 at 11 p.m.
Mujtaba Mohammad Asif had repaired air-conditioning units at a local hotel for about two years when he asked his employer for a promotion. The hotel responded that he did not have the certificate the supervisor position required.

“I realized that if I work here for five or six or 10 years, and if I don’t go to college or go to school to get my certificate, I will be in the same position with the same salary,” Asif said.

Asif decided to resign from his job to join the Growing Opportunities Skilled Trades Academy, a program run by Charlottesville’s Office of Economic Development. Best known for training bus drivers, the GO program expanded in January to train potential construction workers, carpenters and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians.

“With the economy the way it is, we have a lot of development going on in the city of Charlottesville and the surrounding areas,” said Hollie Lee, the city’s chief of workforce development strategies. “We are hearing from employers and general contractors that they are needing entry-level, labor-type positions to be filled, and they just can’t find the people.”

Three years ago, Asif moved to Charlottesville from Kabul, Afghanistan, as a refugee. In Afghanistan, Asif had a bachelor’s degree and a job as a spokesman on a national TV channel.

“When I came here, my diploma and my degree and my university was not something I could use to get a job. Here, everything was different,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, work is work. I will help myself and help my family.’”

The International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville helped Asif get a job as a cashier and later switch to his maintenance job at the hotel.

“I had some experience,” Asif said. “Sometimes I helped my family, cousins and aunts. If they had an issue at home, with their TVs, chairs, tables, lights, electricity or HVAC, they called me.”

Asif entered the GO Skilled Trades Academy in January and attended class four hours a day, Monday through Friday. After the six-week program ended, he got a job with an employer partner of the program, Design Electric, to renovate and expand the University of Virginia Medical Center.

“We have had some employers who are more active than others, and that has typically been a much better, more solid placement,” Lee said.
 
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The employer that particularly demonstrates that commitment is Charlottesville Area Transit.

“Hollie and I sit down and talk about what we want them to learn, how we want them to learn it,” said Juwhan Lee, CAT’s operations manager. “I’m there from Day One. I’m usually in and out of class ... I’m always talking to Hollie about what’s going on in there, what they need: more snacks, water, stuff like that.”

The city piloted the GO program four years ago in response to CAT’s need for bus drivers. GO Driver is now in its ninth round of students, with more than 60 participants so far.

“The program doesn’t guarantee you a job. All it does is elevate the participant to be as qualified, if not more qualified, than someone off the street,” Juwhan Lee said.

The average cost per participant in the GO programs is $2,000. The Office of Economic Development draws on local, state and federal sources of funding, but the significant city investment generally restricts the program to city residents.

“We focus on low-income residents,” Hollie Lee said. “It is definitely our goal to put people into jobs that pay a self-sufficient wage. That’s really the whole premise of the GO programs.”

Restrictions based on criminal histories are minimal and depend on the program. For example, school bus drivers must go through stricter background checks than line cooks.

The city provides support services, such as English classes and transportation, to remove other barriers for program participants.

“We placed one woman into employment, and her car broke down when she started her job,” Hollie Lee said. “Once we knew that, we were able to help her get her car fixed so she was able to get to work. She’s been there three years and is doing well.”
 
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Asif had a similar story. He said he hopes to focus on maintenance work rather than construction jobs in the future. One piece of that was getting an apartment maintenance license through a program at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“The fee was $600 or so,” he said. “Hollie told me, ‘If you go, I will pay, no problem. Go get your license.’”

PVCC ended up paying the fee with one of its own scholarships, but Asif appreciated the city’s encouragement.

“We call it the GO family,” Hollie Lee said. “Once you’re in a GO program and you graduate from it, you’re in the family and we continue to interact and help however we can.”
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