As the child of a Nigerian civil engineer, Afeez Ibrahim shadowed his dad on job sites and figured he would grow up to become a projects inspector just like him.
At 37 years old and now living halfway around the world, Ibrahim is finally getting that chance. He has been hired by WSB as a full-time pipeline inspector thanks to the WSB Opportunity Plus civil-engineering training program he graduated from last week in Minneapolis.
"I am so happy," he said. "I emptied my savings to move up here. It was a big risk. It was hard. ... Some days I didn't have money to buy gas but I am proud I did it."
Golden Valley-based WSB's training program uses 30 of its engineers to train participants as construction surveyors, technicians, construction materials testers and gas- and water- pipeline inspectors.
The unpaid program meets nights and weekends and uses city and county agencies and nonprofits to find recruits.
Nine students in the training program's inaugural class last year were just weeks shy of graduating when COVID-19 hit. WSB was forced to truncate its training. Undaunted, it restarted training in January. Five participants graduated April 14, including Ibrahim, who had quit his sales job in Rochester and moved to the Twin Cities for the training.
He will make $23 an hour, the most he has made since arriving in the U.S. five years ago. He also will receive benefits and have an opportunity to earn additional industry certifications.
"Now my kids will have more," Ibrahim said.
Bret Weiss, president and chief executive of WSB, started the program last year in an effort to diversify the construction industry.
"Our industry is, has been and continues to be very male dominated and traditionally very white, certainly in Minnesota," Weiss said. "We hire good people and then we train them. We said that if we do that for Caucasians, we can certainly do that for women and people of color as well."
WSB is the latest Minnesota company to invest in fellowships, training or apprenticeship programs to expand career opportunities for people of color and women.
After George Floyd's death last year while in police custody, Target, U.S. Bank, Best Buy, Wells Fargo, UnitedHealth Group's Optum, the BrandLab, and Solve advertising pledged new diversity commitments.
Post-pandemic, WSB hopes to train and find jobs for 15 people each year. WSB, which works on construction projects across the Midwest and acts as city engineer for 35 Minnesota cities, is partnering with Hennepin County and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Emerge, Career Force, and the Center for Economic Inclusion to find more trainees and ultimately jobs.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is in early talks with WSB about participating in the program, said spokesman Jake Loesch. "We absolutely share the goals of economic and racial inclusion and diversity," he said. "We also understand the need to diversity the workforce."
MnDOT has its own construction journeyman training program for women and people of color. It had 196 participants last year who trained to become cement masons, pile drivers, pipe fitters, truck drivers, iron workers and carpenters.
When Weiss started WSB's program, he said he was surprised when older applicants signed up. Some were moms with grown kids or immigrants who once had vibrant careers in their home countries. But here in America many "were underemployed," he said.
WSB's engineering program opens the door to careers that ultimately pay $30 to $50 an hour.
For Ibrahim, the job offer came at the right time. Since arriving in Rochester from Nigeria in 2016, the former accounts payable software developer worked various jobs — as an undercover patient for Mayo Clinic, a sales agent for Spectrum Business Services and a food delivery man. None paid more than $18 an hour.
The job also landed at the right time for Trina Gentry of Lino Lakes who worked as a part-time security guard and events staffer while taking care of her dying mother and four nearly grown children.
Working security gigs was fine, she said, but "there is just not a future in that industry. You make the same pay whether you have been there a year or 10 years." After her mom died, "I was at that part in my life where I was finally able to focus on me. I could finally have a job that was consistent."
Gentry saw the WSB training offer on a state jobs board and signed up. Gentry worked with program manager and WSB water resources engineer Laura Rescorla for three months plus a host of engineers and guest speakers.
At the end, Rescorla gauged Gentry's job interest. She liked the training for testing soil, aggregate, asphalt and concrete and thought working on job sites and in the lab would offered variety.
Rescorla set up a series of interviews. Gentry was hired in May at $18.50 an hour and now travels the metro to test freshly mixed concrete before streets are poured.
She has run safety tests on street and building projects in northeast Minneapolis, North St. Paul and Brooklyn Park and hasn't minded being the only woman on the job site. "Everybody on the job site is waiting for my answer," Gentry said.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725