The tornado that ripped through north Minneapolis in 2011 didn’t have an immediate impact on Alan Smith.
Smith had moved away, to Peoria, Ill., and bounced between several low-paying jobs while trying to take care of his family. He also admits he had gotten into trouble and landed in the county jail.
Smith moved back to Minneapolis because he was afraid “I would get drawn back into the violence. I didn’t want to take any chances with that life anymore.”
Smith came back to the devastation of the tornado, which destroyed or damaged more than 200 houses. He wondered what he could do to help. But his warehouse jobs didn’t provide Smith with any tangible skills.
The force of the tornado, however, had ripple effects that Smith, 25, could not foresee.
The Northside Community Response Team was formed to transform social services on the North Side. Its plan includes the Workforce Investment Network (WIN), which provides vocational training and job-placement assistance, helping individuals become self-sufficient and get off government assistance.
For the past several months, Smith has been working with WIN on carpentry and construction skills, putting in long class hours, hands-on time on mock-up houses they call the “play yard” at Summit Academy OIC. He’s one of the first of about 50 students, all of them getting some sort of government aid, to graduate in a few weeks. He hopes to use the knowledge to help rebuild north Minneapolis.
“It’s five months of my life to learn new skills that will last a lifetime and let me give back to the community,” Smith said. “I think I have a fair shot [at a good job].”
Louis King, leader of NCRT and president and CEO of Summit Academy, said the group did a survey and found out 67 percent of those affected by the tornado were on some public assistance, even though many of them have minimum wage full-time jobs.
Those who can’t get a job that pays them enough to live on quickly learn to say, “where’s my check?” to the government, King says. “Changing that attitude is easier said than done.”
“We have a structural issue,” King said. “We have to be kind of like pioneers.”
So, the response team started training students in two growing economic sectors that pay well: health care and construction.
“There’s $1.6 billion in construction downtown by 2016, without the Southwest rail line,” said King. “It’s a no-brainer.”
The first portion of the program focuses on life skills and career counseling, then the participants go into training programs depending on their career track. The program also provides job-placement assistance. Those going into health care can make between $11.50 to $16 an hour, while construction jobs pay $16 to $20.
King pulled out a chart showing just how important it is to train minorities for skilled jobs. Demographic trends indicate the number of working-age white residents will decrease by 5 percent by 2020 and 21 percent by 2040. Meanwhile, the number of working-age people of color will rise 40 percent by 2020 and 140 percent by 2040.
If we have another downturn in the economy, “boomers won’t be around to bring it back,” so investment in training for young people is essential.
King knows the local business community and can work as the “broker” to get people jobs.
“I can tell them the side of people on the North Side that they don’t hear on the news,” King said.
There is a lot of talk about equity in government bodies, from the City Council to the national level, but the talk is vague and awkward. “Government has never led the way to equity,” said King. “It’s not equipped to do it. You can’t make a tank fly. We have to be very intentional to give people access to equity.”
That is the hope for people such as Smith, who answers questions with a polite, “yes, sir.”
“It’s a heartfelt city, and I want to do something to help out,” said Smith. “I have skills now that will always be in demand. I feel grateful to know I have somewhere to go after school.”